COVINGTON, Ga. — The county attorney is disputing claims by the government’s top elected official and Probate Court judge that miscalculation of their pay over four years meant the government owes them each more than $180,000 in back pay.
County Attorney Megan Martin said the government “stands behind its interpretation” of a state law written for Newton County in calculating the salaries of County Commission Chairman Marcello Banes and Probate Judge Melanie Bell since each took office in 2017.
Banes and Bell hired Covington attorney Stephanie Lindsey, who said she interpreted the law differently than the county regarding how salaries are calculated.
She said the chairman and judge should have received salary increases based on the highest minimum annual salary of any “county officer,” defined as the tax commissioner, sheriff, clerk of courts and Probate Court judge.
Lindsey said the county used the sheriff’s salary to determine the pay but should have used the salary of Clerk of Courts Linda Hays, including any longevity pay, cost of living adjustments, local supplements and any tax appeal supplements she receives. Hays has been in office 38 years.
She said Banes’ salary for 2020 should have been $145,000 but the county’s calculations meant he is receiving $101,000 this year. Bell is receiving $103,000 but should be receiving $148,000, the attorney said.
“On behalf of Chairman Banes and Judge Bell, we request that a Special (called) Meeting be set, as soon as practicably possible, to handle this matter and review all the applicable laws, documentation and calculations,” Lindsey wrote in a letter to Martin.
Martin, whose law firm represents the county government, said the county has historically interpreted the law as calculating the officials’ pay based on a formula that did not include cost of living allowances and longevity for other county officials.
“This historic interpretation remains the County’s interpretation today and has been the method of computation for many years,” Martin said.
She said the county is using Bell’s salary as the highest minimum annual salary to calculate pay because it factored in supplements she received.
Martin, however, said the method of calculation is open to interpretation. She said she had asked Georgia General Assembly members representing Newton County for legislation clarifying the law in recent years but had not received it.
However, she also said it did not appear pay increases of 40% each were justified.
“This is particularly concerning where neither the chairman nor the Probate judge have currently completed a term,” Martin said.
She added she had sought an opinion from the state Attorney General’s office on interpretation of the local law governing the salaries.
Banes and Bell declined comment.