Raises Clear Divided House

Dozens of West Virginia county magistrates would receive $6,375 annual salary boosts under proposed legislation, and the pay for magistrates in Wetzel County would return to its original level.

A 53-45 party-line vote sent the bill from the House to the state Senate, the first from the House to cross over since the Legislature convened Feb. 13. Passage followed an hour-and-a-half debate and Monday’s failed GOP attempt to block the bill from proceeding.

Magistrates in Wetzel County were pleased with the bill’s passage in the House, but both were quick to point out the measure would not boost their salaries – instead it would return them to their initial pay scale.

West Virginia now sets two pay levels for magistrate courts, based on a county’s population. The 2010 Census showed declines in Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming counties, shifting their 10 magistrates and court staff into the lesser-paid tier on Jan. 1.

Wednesday’s bill would place all magistrate courts in the same, higher-paid tier. That would restore the salaries of the 10 magistrates while raising that of 38 others to $57,500 a year. The measure would also increase annual pay for 23 clerks by $5,160 to $44,720, and for 48 magistrate assistants and five deputy clerks by $3,300 to $39,348.

Magistrates Thomas J. Shepherd and Judith P. Goontz handle all cases in Wetzel County, which can be a heavy workload. Goontz said for 26 weeks a year, she is unable to travel outside an hour of Wetzel County, as she is on call. That includes nights and every other weekend.

“Magistrate court is where the rubber meets the road,” said Shepherd.

“In Kanawha County, they have 10 magistrates, so they are only on call every 10 weeks,” Goontz said. “And even though we may not have the same population or caseload as they do, we still have to have the same knowledge as those other magistrates.”

Shepherd and Goontz also said an inaccurate Census made the difference in Wetzel County dropping into the second pay tier.

“If you were to go door-to-door and knock on every apartment or house and count, I believe you’d find over 18,000 people,” Shepherd said, noting that number is the cutoff for the tier. “There are so many more people here today who have moved in with the new gas and construction work who you may not recognize, but they live in our community.”

That boom also has increased the workload for the magistrates.

“It can vary by year, depending on civil filings, but we have seen more crimes and felonies,” Goontz said.

Goontz, who has served 33 years as magistrate, and Shepherd, who has served eight, both said the pay cut they received at the beginning of the year was “devastating,” especially when considering other elected positions are not paid on a population-based scale. Goontz said with 2012 being an election year, other problems were also created.

“We pay a percentage of the salary to file to run, and we paid based on that higher number,” she said. “That obviously changed at the beginning of the year after we had been re-elected.”

Regardless of the outcome of the bill, both magistrates said they will continue to do the same job they have done over the course of their careers.

“There is nothing I’m going to do tomorrow that I haven’t done in eight years as magistrate,” Shepherd said. “I’m going to do the same job.”

Republicans gained 11 House seats in November, increasing their total to 46 of 100 delegates. They argued Wednesday that the budget is too tight for permanently adding $737,069 for increased pay and benefits. GOP delegates also questioned the bill’s fast track, given other pressing issues.

“Meanwhile, we face crushing Medicaid costs, diminishing coal severance tax and the lowest work force participation in the nation,” said House Minority Whip Daryl Cowles of Morgan County. “I agree that magistrates in West Virginia do good work, and so do their clerks and assistants. They are compensated quite well. … That’s all we can do right now.”

Just one Republican, Delegate Bob Ashley of Roane County, broke party ranks to pass Wednesday’s bill. Two Democrats were absent: House Health Chairman Don Perdue of Wayne County and Delegate John Pino of Fayette County.