After a judge recently ruled in favor of Louella Pryor in her back pay lawsuit against the Morgan County Salary Commission, Morgan County Presiding Commissioner James Vaughan defended the county commission's decision to refuse to settle with Pryor out of court — both before the lawsuit was filed and after the preliminary hearing in the case.
Retired Howard County Judge Ralph Jaynes granted Pryor's motion for summary judgement on Oct. 2 and denied the county's cross-motion for summary judgement in their favor.
Morgan County owes Pryor more than $93,500 after the court found that she should have been paid a $45,000 salary from when she first took office as Morgan County Treasurer in 2003.
From 2003-2010, Pryor received a salary of $33,300 per year — 74 percent of the state-mandated maximum salary for her office. All other elected officials received 100 percent of their maximum salaries.
The judgement awarded Pryor the difference in pay for those years — the $93,600 — with interest. Pryor will be allowed to make contributions to her retirement plan retrospectively for those years based on the salary of $45,000. The county commission has also been ordered to make contributions to Pryor's retirement plan in an amount equal to the amount that would have been paid for those years based on the $45,000 salary.
At one point, Pryor offered to settle for four years of the difference, or $46,800, without interest, but the county commission refused.
Confusing the matter, Pryor was on the salary commission and voted on the salaries during those years. As a member of the salary commission, she herself was cited as a defendant in her own lawsuit.
In the written statement issued by Vaughan, he brings up Pryor's role on the salary commission and that she voted to keep her salary at $33,300.
"There was never a time that she made a motion, nor did any other elected official make a motion on her behalf, to increase her salary," Vaughan stated.
He goes on to argue, "In 2003 the language of one of the state statutes that governs the Salary Commission stated that her salary MAY increase to $45,000.00. Again, there was no motion made to that affect. In 2007, the language changed to SHALL increase to $45,000. Still with no motion made during the Salary Commission meeting, Mrs. Pryor was given the increase at the beginning of her new term in 2011."
Pryor has said she did raise the issue at the salary commission meeting in November 2005, but a motion by Morgan County Assessor Bob Raines to set salaries at 100 percent was ignored in favor of a motion by Western District Commission Warren Anderson to accept the salaries as proposed on a "base salary" sheet distributed by then-Prosecuting Attorney Marvin Opie.
That paper listed the treasurer's base salary as $33,300.
Page 2 of 3 - If the term "base salary" had been used consistently for all offices, the treasurer's "base salary" would have been reported as $45,000, according to the court judgement.
Pryor has said she questioned the legality of the salary ever since, but was unsure in the matter until attending an Oct. 2011 Missouri Association of Counties meeting where she heard an attorney speak on elected officials' salaries.
After that talk, Pryor has said she then knew that the treasurer's salary had always been unlawfully lower than all other Morgan County elected officials since she took office in 2003.
The difference in salary was also noted in a past audit by the Missouri Auditor's office.
The judge ruled that Pryor was owed 100 percent of the salary for all eight years because of a 1997 vote to set all officials' salaries at the full rate by the salary commission. That decision according to county records was never altered by subsequent salary commission, according to the court ruling.
A set of records from 2001 indicated no action was taken by the commission, leaving the past vote to stand. Then when the assessed valuation of Morgan County topped $300 million that same year and put the county into a new category, all elected officials except for the treasurer's office received a salary increase to 100 percent even for those who were mid-term.
No vote of the salary commission was ever made to effect those increases, and there was neither a motion nor a vote to provide for a lower percentage for the treasurer, the court judgement stated.
Then in 2003, during Pryor's first term, the Missouri General Assembly repealed Subsection 2 of Section 54.261 to set the salary for treasurers — of county's with assessed valuation of $300 million or more — at $45,000. The change removed even the option of setting the salary at $33,300. If there was any doubt about what the salary should be, it was made plain that it had to be $45,000 on the effective date of the legislation on Aug. 28, 2003, the court judgement stated.
As a third class county, the Morgan County Salary Commission had no authority to establish a salary for the treasurer at $33,300, the court judgement states. The only way the salary commission could legally have set the treasurer's salary at 74 percent of the maximum only was with a two-thirds vote to set all elected officials' salaries at 74 percent.
According to Vaughan, the county commission acted under the advisement of their attorney who assured them that, due to the statute of limitations, Pryor would not be able to collect more than 4 years of back, if even that.
Judge Jaynes disagreed with that interpretation of the law as well, ruling that the five year statute of limitations did not apply in this case because Missouri courts have consistently ruled that a cause of unpaid compensation does not accrue until the last date on which services are performed or when employment is terminated.
Page 3 of 3 - It was only on Dec. 31, 2010 that Pryor's unpaid compensation ended, under the court's findings.