Unicoi Co., 911 dispatchers reach pay deal

Brad Hicks • Jul 11, 2012 at 7:20 AM

ERWIN — Unicoi County officials have reached a settlement in the lawsuit filed earlier this year against the county and its emergency communications district by emergency dispatchers seeking accumulated overtime pay.

In a brief called meeting held Tuesday evening, the Unicoi County Commission approved a mediated settlement amount of $121,850. This amount will include the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and expenses and will be paid by the defendants to the plaintiffs in exchange for a “full and final release of all claims against the settling parties and a dismissal of the pending suit with prejudice,” the mediation settlement memorandum states.

In January, eight former and current dispatchers filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Greeneville naming the county and the Unicoi County Emergency Communications District as defendants. The dispatchers were seeking unpaid compensation, as well as an equal amount of liquidated damages, costs and attorneys’ fees.

The issue of dispatcher overtime was discussed a month before the lawsuit was filed at a Dec. 5 meeting of the Unicoi County 911 Service Board. At that meeting, Unicoi County Commission Chairwoman Sue Jean Wilson said that when the dispatchers were switched from working eight-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts in July 2010, more than $33,000 in overtime was accumulated.

Unicoi County 911 Director Patsy Ledford also said at that meeting that former sheriff Kent Harris made the shift change decision in an attempt to save the county money by placing the dispatchers on shifts similar to those of sheriff’s department deputies. The County Technical Advisory Service subsequently advised county officials that the pay cycle that applies to deputies would not apply to the dispatchers and the overtime would need to be paid.

At the Dec. 5 meeting, the 911 Service Board voted to pay half of the overtime owed with the understanding the county would pay the other half. But at its Dec. 19 meeting, the County Commission voted to reject this measure and voted to table a budget amendment related to the 911 Service Board’s vote.

In April, both the County Commission and 911 Service Board approved measures allowing County Attorney Doug Shults to enter into negotiations in an attempt to settle the lawsuit. Shults was authorized to offer up to $60,000 for negotiation purposes with county paying half and the 911 Service Board paying the other half, including approximately $19,000 that was previously approved by the 911 Service Board to be put toward a settlement before the lawsuit was filed.

On June 25, Shults told county commissioners that both sides were still in mediation and that a special called meeting may be held in the future, leading to Tuesday’s meeting.

The commission approved the settlement by a 7-1 vote on Tuesday. Commissioner Mickey Hatcher was not present, and Commissioner Gene Wilson cast the dissenting vote. Following the meeting, Wilson said he felt the sheriff’s department should be solely responsible for the settlement since it made the change that led to the lawsuit.

“I just don’t think it’s the taxpayers’ responsibility,” Wilson said. Tuesday’s called meeting was preceded by closed client/attorney meetings in which Shults met with the commission and the 911 Service Board. County Mayor Greg Lynch said a quorum of the 911 Service Board approved the settlement amount and that board will be responsible for paying only the approximately $19,000 it had previously voted to put toward a settlement.

According to the mediation settlement memorandum, the county and 911 Service Board have until Oct. 31 to make payment of the settlement proceeds. Lynch also said a judge must still approve the agreed upon settlement.

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