SALISBURY – Emotions ran high during Wicomico County Council’s legislative session this week as the Orphan’s Court judge’s request for a raise was denied.
Wicomico County Orphan’s Court Chief Judge Norma Lee Barkley and Judges Melissa Bright and William Smith came before the Wicomico County Council to request an endorsement for the first salary increase for their posts in eight years.
Council Administrator Matt Creamer explained the judges first requested a discussion with the council in January but Tuesday evening’s council legislative session, which was postponed to Wednesday due to weather, was the first opportunity for the item to be scheduled.
“The changing of salaries of the judges of the Orphans Court is by legislative bill, which is considered by the state legislature. However, as is the case in most instances where a local county is responsible for the funding of salaries and operating costs, the delegation requests a letter of support or direction from the local governing body,” Creamer said. “County Executive [Rick] Pollitt has already sent a letter of endorsement to Delegate Cane, and it is now the opportunity for you to discuss this and state your preference.”
Smith came before the council to explain the work load, such as cases and hearings, and time requirements for Wicomico County Orphan’s Court have increased tremendously. Additionally, he said the number of required annual educational seminars and different committee meetings the judges serve on have also increased.
“We are unique. We are the only court that have the jurisdiction to deal with probate matters, from there they go up to the Circuit Court and eventually end up at the Court of Appeals who have the determination of what happens with estates, wills and guardianships. We are very important people, and I don’t think everybody understands the importance or the significance of this court,” Smith said.
Orphan’s Court judges in Maryland are elected to serve a four-year term.
“We have not had an increase over the last eight years, and it will be another four years before this opportunity will represent itself. We first requested this of you in January, and we have not been able to act. It means we have to jump through a few more hoops at the General Assembly because of that but we can do that. It’s not too late but we need your endorsement,” Smith said.
Creamer reminded the council the state legislative session ends in April.
“The time to introduce new bills is getting very close if it hasn’t already passed … so if a letter of endorsement were to be sent it should be sent as soon as possible,” he said.
Wicomico County Orphan’s Court judges currently receive a salary of $6,400 and are requesting an increase to $9,500. Pollitt endorsed raising the salaries the full amount requested.
Councilwoman Stevie Prettyman looked to the neighboring Worcester County Commission who approved an increase for Worcester County Orphan’s Court judges from $2,000 to $3,500.
“I would be in favor of sending a letter to Delegate Cane in support of this,” said Prettyman, as she made a motion to approve a letter of endorsement for the full amount requested. “The salaries have not changed since 2006 but the complexities of their duties have increased.”
Councilwoman Gail Bartkovich was conflicted as she agreed the judges deserved a raise because their responsibilities have increased, but she said the council had recently denied raises for council members, the county executive and sheriff of Wicomico County.
“I don’t want to confuse this issue but I am embarrassed the request for the council, sheriff and county executive was not tabled, and I am going to be bringing that back up again,” Prettyman said. “I hope we take a good look at it to fund good employees for different offices.”
Bright came before the council to share other bills regarding Orphan’s Court judge’s salaries that are currently before the legislature.
“We are fully cognizant and have sympathy with the situation you have with the economy and raises overall, so we know this is a very touchy subject. We only ask for it at all because of the length of time that is involved here … there is a state recognition that the job we are doing here is changing,” she said.
According to Bright, Baltimore County is asking for an increase from $62,500 to $72,500 per judge; Anne Arundel County is asking for an increase from $29,000 to $45,000, and from $29,500 to $47,000 for the Chief Judge, which is a 55-percent increase in salary; Fredrick County is asking for an increase from $6,000 to $10,000, and $6,500 to $11,000 for the chief judge, which is a 66.6 percent increase; Carroll County is asking for $10,000 to $15,000, which is a 50-percent increase; and St. Mary’s County, which has a population similar to Wicomico County therefore the expected the case load is similar, has requested an increase from $6,000 to $9,000, which is a 50-percent increase.
“Our increase is less than 50 percent,” Bright said. “I fully understand the tough position you are in but we want you to understand why we had the audacity to ask.”
The council contemplated endorsing a portion of the requested increase, but felt two different endorsed increases between the council and Pollitt would complicate the matter on a state level.
“This is probably the cheapest raise we have been asked for but how do you justify giving this raise and not the others. I think if we hold something true we have to hold it for everybody. We are all in this together,” Councilman Bob Culver said.
Eventually Bartkovich seconded Prettyman’s motion to move the council to a vote but before the council could finish a roll call vote, Barkley interjected.
“I don’t think you really understand what we do. I don’t think you understand how much time we put into this job. You have no idea. We don’t always make a decision. Sometimes we have to wait for weeks and study a case. No, we are not retired lawyers or judges but I am here to tell you that no one does a better job than the Orphans Court of Wicomico County,” Barkley said. “The people that come to us not only come to us over an estate or a will, they come into our office grieving. They come into our office sometimes almost fighting. You have no idea what this job is all about … and we have to almost beg for a raise. If people as intelligent as you are, can’t see through what we’re asking for, I see a problem … What you’re saying, what you do for one, you have to do for another. I disagree with you, and the reason being that all of jobs are not the same. Why would you compare what I’m doing with what you’re doing? We work for every dime that we get.”
The council denied the request to endorse a salary increase for the Wicomico County Orphans Court judges in a vote of 3-2 with Bartkovich, Joe Holloway, and Culver in opposition, Prettyman and John Hall in favor and Matt Holloway and Sheree Sample-Hughes absent.