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Commissioner Ford Calls All County Employees First Responders – County Employees to Get $1,000 Bonus Pronto – 12th Hour Reso Illegal

Rocky Ford's 12th hour surprise: ‘If we can fund the Sheriff to do it, we can too.'

Jay Swisher, Columbia County Fl Clerk of the Courts
Columbia County Observer photo & graphic

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – In another 12th-hour surprise, Commissioners Rocky Ford and Tim Murphy planned to anoint all County employees as first responders and give them a $1,000 bonus to have by New Year.

Those who arrived at Thursday's last County Commission meeting of the year, before it was gaveled to order, would have seen the HR Director handing the County 5 copies of a 12th hour proposed resolution granting all County employees $1,000 bonuses.

There was no effort to advise the public of these new bonuses as once again, the County 5 violated its policy of having agenda items in the County office eight days before its meetings.

If grandstanding wasn't the order of the day, the bonuses could have been granted at the next County 5 meeting. There was no emergency.

While there were last minute additions to the evening's agenda placed on the County website in the morning (12-21-2023), this 1/4 million plus dollar expense remained under wraps until forty-five minutes into the meeting.

Read a really short version of what went wrong here.

Forty-Five Minutes Into the Meeting, the Bonus Discussion Began

Commissioner Ford kicked off the conversation: “I’d just like to say I talked to David about this earlier, and he's in agreement with this.”

The County ordinance enabling bonus payments says the County Manager makes the “recommendation to the board."

Commissioner Ford continued, “We all know that the state give out a thousand dollars bonuses to all the first responders earlier in the year. Well, at the last meeting, we approved more money for the Sheriff for raises and to fund his step plan. And some of the reason that was is 'cause the Sheriff give all his employees this thousand dollars bonus. Well, the state how they define a first responder is fire department - law enforcement. But I think we all know when the hurricane hit Columbia County we had a bunch of first responders in public works; had a fir, bunch of first responders in Parks and Recreation. I mean, they were on the front line this past weekend. We had four to seven inches of rain in Columbia County with high winds.” 

The Governor’s program (the Florida Essential First Responders Recognition Payment Program) recognizes first responders as Sworn Law Enforcement, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT), Firefighters, and Paramedics — employed by a local government for their dedication to public service.

Commissioner Ford said, “I had trees down in my district. We had guys out at four o'clock in the morning removing trees off the road, running pumps, pumping water off people's houses. And I think our employees deserve this thousand dollars bonus, also. If we can fund the Sheriff to give all his employees a thousand dollars bonus, surely we can fund for us, for our employees to have a thousand bonus, also.”

The County did not “fund the Sheriff to give all his employees a thousand dollars bonus.” The funding for the Sheriff’s Sworn Law Enforcement Officers came from the state. The money was passed through the County. The amount for Sworn Deputies that came from the state for the “recognition payment” was $1,338.31 per employee. Those Deputies received 1099s for the payment and have to pay their own taxes on the payment.
The Governor's Recognition Program has been operative for the past three years. For those three years, Sheriff Hunter has given his employees not covered by the Governor's program $1,000. Other Sheriffs in Florida have also given their employees not covered by the Governor's program $1,000. Sheriff Hunter and those other Sheriffs consider their Offices a Law Enforcement Team and found the money in their budgets to give all Sheriff’s employees bonus parity.

Commissioner Rocky Ford
Commissioner Rocky Ford: His Christmas surprise doesn't cut legal muster.

On Thursday night, Commissioner Ford explained the County 5 financing: “We approved $264,000 for the Sheriff. I'm asking for $260,000 to fund our employees with this thousand dollars bonus. And when I say a thousand dollars, I'm talkin’ about net a thousand dollars to the employees. Same thing they done everywhere else. Um, you know, it's a one-time expense. It's not, it's not a raise. So we can do it with non-recurring money, or we can use whatever money we want on this.”

Commissioner Ford’s remarks are misleading. Sheriff Hunter did not use the $264,000 to fund the Sheriff's Office bonuses. What Mr. Ford meant by "Same thing they done everywhere else" was not explained.

Commissioner Ford continued, “So, every one of us, we know that our employees stepped up and performed beyond their duties this year with the hurricane and other storms throughout the year. Manning shelters working seven days a week, 12 hours a day till they got this stuff done. And I think our employees served the south (unintelligible) also. I have a resolution before you. I can't, I think Lisa handed it out earlier. It's resolution number 2023 R dash 72. And I'm askin’ this Board to approve resolution 2023 R dash 72, and I'll make the motion givin' our employees a thousand dollars raise.”

The County 5:
Over-talking and Interrupting – They are shameless

No sooner had the motion fallen from Commissioner Ford's lips, The 5 did their thing – no need to follow their rules or any rules of decorum. Asking for permission to be recognized is out of order for them.

Commissioner Murphy:  Second

Commissioner Ford:    Bonus.

Commissioner Murphy:   I’ll second it.


Chairman Williams:  Hold on a minute. Hold a minute.

Unidentified:  Yep.

Chairman Williams:  Read the resolution into the minutes.

Commissioner Phillips:  Joel, can you read the resolution?

Commissioner Ford:   I'm sorry, David, go ahead. 

County Manager Kraus:   Um, the reason this came up here is because the commissioner wants to amend the budget amendment that was on the consent agenda.

Commissioner Ford:   Right.

County Manager Kraus:    To include the additional funds. And, uh, he's planning to use it from the return funds plus 30,000 from contingency. 

Chairman Williams:   Joel, you're gonna read the resolution into the minutes?

The Rule: The resolution can be either read by title (the bold type on the top of the resolution) or read in full.

County Attorney Foreman read the complete resolution.

Normally, now that the Board and the public knew what was in the resolution, the Chairman would request a motion to approve the resolution. That would be in the civilized world.

Chairman Williams:   All right, I have a motion and a second.

The 5 Marched On

Commissioner Ford began the discussion, “Before we, before we vote, I just wanna say, I, I want to add this to the budget amendment of 24 dash 17. And I've talked to Jay [Clerk of the Court, Jay Swisher] right here. Just, just ask him. And he said that this, if we approve this tonight, it would be possible to get this check to the employees at the pay, regular pay period next Friday. Okay. So, uh, they would have it for New Year.”

It is not clear why Mr. Ford asked Clerk Swisher the question. The resolution, which was just read in full into the record, states, "Employee bonus checks shall be distributed as a separate check the pay period ending Tuesday, December 26th, 2023."

Commissioner Murphy announced that discussions with the Clerk had been happening for at least a week. Mr. Murphy, without being recognized, "And Chair, I had a brief discussion with Jay, uh, last week relevant to, uh, this. Jay, can we call this bonus?"

An unidentified person spoke up from the dais. The remarks were unintelligible.

Commissioner Murphy continued, “Okay. Because that was kind of where me and you was goin' and, and I, I'm a hundred percent for it. I just wanted to make sure that we didn't make a mistake here on this resolution and have to come back and amend.”

It didn’t look like the County Attorney wrote the resolution.

Commissioner Ford said, “Well, I had the lawyer, I had Joel, our lawyer and our county manager look into this today and...”

County Attorney Foreman, The 5's parliamentarian interrupts, “There yes. To, to address Commissioner Murphy's concern there is a Florida statute that prohibits bonus payment unless the Board has adopted a policy. You did that in 2003.”

Commissioner Murphy, who speaks on everything that comes into his mind, “Gotcha. Okay.”

County Attorney Foreman continued, “Because it is lump sum and it's treated equally across all of your employment categories other than those that are excluded here for other reasons…”

The County Resolution Didn’t Meet the Requirements of the County Ordinance or Florida Law

In 2003, County Attorney Marlin Feagle gave a legal opinion on whether the County can pay bonuses to County employees. Mr. Feagle explained that the County could pay bonuses as long as it passed an ordinance with a policy explaining the bonus payment.

The County passed Ordinance 2003-30. The intent of the “Lump Sum Bonus Payment Program” was spelled out in the Ordinance:

It is the intent of this Ordinance to provide a lump sum employee bonus payment program to provide employee work incentives for future rather than past performance which exceeds the standards of the employee's position and which serves the interest of the public.
The recommendation for the lump sum bonus is based on a recommendation by the County Manager.
No payment shall be made for services already performed and for which the employee has been compensated… The payment shall not be compensation for past performance.

It’s off to the races again –
Just talking when one feels like it

County Manager Kraus interrupts, “For the sake of clarity, if I could recommend one change, fire and rescue employees are not eligible to receive bonus. I think the commissioner's intent was those that received the state bonuses wouldn't be eligible. We do have one civilian employee in the fire department, and I think they should be eligible.”

Commissioner Murphy:  “Yeah, Yeah, absolutely.”

Commissioner Ford:   “If they didn't receive this, if they didn't receive it from the state, then they should receive it from us.”

Commissioner Murphy:  “Absolutely.”

Commissioner Hollingsworth:  “Across the board.”

County Manager Kraus:  “I just wanted to clarify that.”

Commissioner Murphy:  “Right. Yes. Yes.”

Chairman Williams: “Any other questions or comments?”

Commissioner Phillips said he agreed.

Chairman Williams called for the vote without asking for public comment.

The resolution passed unanimously.

The Budget Amendment:  Funding the illegal bonus

The budget amendment almost slipped through without being amended. County Attorney Foreman did catch that, adding that he thought the amendment was “implicit.”

There is nothing in the County rules addressing implicit amendments. That is why pencil and paper were invented.

The budget amendment was not restated as the rules require. It is unclear why the County management did not have the proposed amendment ready for the meeting.

Epilogue  (a really short version of what went wrong)

The County bonus ordinance spells out in plain English, "It is the intent of this Ordinance to provide a lump sum employee bonus payment program to provide employee work incentives for future rather than past performance.”

Commissioner Ford made it clear that the County 5 bonus was for past performance when he said, “Our employees stepped up and performed beyond their duties this year with the hurricane and other storms throughout the year.” (In earth time and plain English, the employee performance was in the past).

With more plain English, the Ordinance goes on to state, "No payment shall be made for services already performed and for which the employee has been compensated… The payment shall not be compensation for past performance.”

County employees were paid overtime for the extra work that was performed.

Assistant County Manager Kevin Kirby fired one employee for not coming in during the hurricane. Mr. Kirby later changed his mind.

It is unknown if Florida's governmental checks and balances will work in Columbia County.

If Jay Swisher, Clerk of the Court, signs the checks, the public will have its answer.

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