Pulaski County OKs $93 million budget after salary contention

LITTLE ROCK -- The Pulaski County Quorum Court approved a $93 million budget on Tuesday after contention over changes made to parole and probation officers' salaries.

On Oct. 6, the budget committee voted on the amount of $731,664 for the officers' total salaries in the coming year. But, on Nov. 7, the committee voted again and the salary amount had been amended to $551,508 without the quorum court's being notified and without Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffen's being notified.

The higher salary package for the current officers was approved Tuesday, but circuit court judges and Quorum Court members weren't convinced that this was the last change they would see made to the probation officers' positions.

Incoming Circuit Court Judge LaTonya Austin Honorable brought a printed email for Quorum Court members to review. On Oct. 14, Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde, the county's chief executive officer, wrote to Comptroller Mike Hutchens and Human Resources Director Chastity Scifres: "We dropped the 4 probation officers last night. Do not advertise the [Chief] probation officer position. We will not fill it."

By state law, the chief probation officer position has to be active and filled as needed. Judge Griffen told a Quorum Court committee last week that he had to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the files stating the two different salary amounts.

"That's a $180,000 change," he said. "That's three positions, three probation officers. Each one serves about 125 clients. You can't do it; that's a plan to shut it down. That's a plan to shut down probation."

At Tuesday night's meeting, Hyde addressed the discrepancy in the salary amounts.

"Over the years, the county courts have provided three additional Probation Department positions for a total of six," he said. "I don't know the reasons why those positions were approved in the past, but we've had a discussion for the last seven years, and we've been reducing the courts consistently at opportune times." He said retirement of the current judges is an opportune time and "what we've done in the past to remove all positions except for what the state mandates."

Hyde said that judges like Cathleen Compton and Karen Whatley have "100% criminal dockets" so there is no need for state-mandated or county-provided probation officers. In the Fifth Division, half of the cases are criminal and half are civil, he said, and their courts have three state-mandated positions like the First Division.

"I just wanted to point that out to you that we're simply doing our job. We have an excellent staff of folks who work hard every day and during the budget season, they work extra hard, and they work honestly, but they're capable of making a mistake. I want to make that clear," Hyde said. "We will approach you at the end of next year to remove the budget for any of those county positions that are not occupied and in positions that are currently occupied, we will not fill those. That's a decision that lies in the responsibility of the county judge and I can tell you that we are not going to fill that open position or positions as it comes along."

Honorable said she understands that Hyde's plan is to phase out the "excess probation officers" in the near future. In his email to Hutchens and Scifres, Hyde directly contradicts the law, she said.

"We want the public to be made aware of what's happening in county government."