The Dukes County commission voted unanimously last week to seek an opinion from a labor lawyer over salary discrepancies between airport non-union employees and other county employees.
In a memorandum to the county commissioners at their Nov. 14 meeting, county manager Martina Thornton noted that four airport non-union employees received a 3.1 per cent cost of living adjustment while county employees received a 1.28 per cent adjustment in pay. The adjustments took effect July 1, at the start of the 2013 fiscal year.
“At this point, if an employee with the same job description . . . and on the same grade on the pay scale is employed at the airport, they would be paid a different amount than if employed by any other department of the county,” Mrs. Thornton wrote in the memorandum. “This situation points to unfair labor practice and the county employees would like to know why this is allowed.”
Representatives from the treasurer’s office, the registry of deeds and the department of veterans services were present for the discussion.
“I believe it is unfair to the county employees that we are not all receiving the same COLA,” wrote veterans agent Jo Ann Murphy in a letter to the commissioners. “I respectfully request that all county employee’s should be treated the same.” Ms. Murphy is also a member of the county personnel board.
Dianne Powers, register of deeds, said she believed the airport can have a separate pay scale than the county but not separate benefits.
“Unless a labor attorney says differently, I view COLA as a benefit, not as part of wages,” Ms. Powers said. “There needs to be clarity.”
The county advisory board, made up of selectmen from each town, has oversight over the county budget, and county commissioner Tristan Israel said he believes that should apply to the airport budget as well.
“I think the board does have purview over the airport budget if they choose to,” Mr. Israel said.
County commissioner Thomas Hallahan was reluctant to speculate.
“Wait until legal counsel [gives an opinion],” he said.
Reached by telephone this week, county advisory board member Arthur Smadbeck said the airport commission develops its own budget that is then reviewed by the county commissioners and the advisory board. The airport commission, which is appointed by the county commission, has ultimate approval of the airport budget, he said.
He said in May the advisory board approved the county budget, which included the 1.8 per cent cost of living adjustment. The adjustment was set based on a formula using the average adjustments from the six Island towns from last year. Mr. Smadbeck said the advisory board and commissioners agreed on the formula before the budget was approved.
“We are going to stick to the formula,” he said. “The fact that the airport has a different COLA than the county is the same as saying Edgartown has a different COLA than the county, or the school has a different COLA than the police.”
He referred to a 2005 court decision that found the airport can operate independently of the county.
“The county commissioners’ control of the airport begins and ends with the appointment of the airport commissioners,” Mr. Smadbeck said.
John Alley, airport commission chairman and county commissioner who was not present during the discussion, agreed with Mr. Smadbeck and said the airport has the authority to set up its own pay scale for employees.
“The airport’s revenues pays for its expenses,” Mr. Alley said. “There is no financial liability from the county. In other words, the county does not fund the airport.”
Melinda Loberg, chairman of the county commission, generally agreed, although she said: “There continues to be a little bit of fuzziness around the edges of that decision. Because all the airport employees are paid through the county.”
Mrs. Thornton said she expects an opinion from labor counsel by the end of the year.