The estrangement between Jackson County Executive Frank White and a once-supportive county legislature grew Wednesday when legislators took steps to hire their own staff to guide them through the coming budget process and build a new jail.
Normally the county executive’s folks crunch the budget numbers for the legislature’s consideration and report on big projects.
But the body’s growing distrust of White and his chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, as well as frustration over White’s lack of progress on jail planning set up Wednesday’s special meeting on two proposals suggested by legislator Dennis Waits.
On a vote of 7-2, legislators created three new executive positions whose combined salaries total $382,000 at the top of their pay range. Salaries for two of the jobs — budget/financial analyst and special projects analyst — would range from $87,800 to $147,754. A “public liaison” job would range in pay from $52,450 to $86,550 on the top end.
But the added personnel costs wouldn’t end there. Those figures do not include benefits like health insurance and retirement.
And because the salary ranges for the two higher-paid jobs were 34 percent above the pay ranges for two existing positions —legislative clerk and legislative auditor — legislators raised those salary ranges, too, as a matter of fairness.
But clerk Mary Jo Spino and auditor Crissy Wooderson, whose pay grade maxes out at $110,520 a year, will not get an automatic raise. That would be decided during the upcoming budget process next month.
Two of the new positions duplicate others already in the budget that report to the county executive.
For instance, there is already a public information officer on White’s staff. But legislator Dan Tarwater said in an interview after the meeting that the person holding that job now, Marshanna Hester, represents the county executive’s point of view and not that of the legislature.
The executive ranks also include a chief financial officer position responsible for putting together the annual budget. That job has been open since last week, when White fired longtime finance director Troy Thomas without explanation.
That opening, along with the legislature’s growing disagreement with White over financial issues, is why legislators want their own numbers person to help draft next year’s budget before the end of this year, Tarwater said.
The special project analyst, meanwhile, is something new. That person would work on issues of concern to the legislature, such as studying ways to pay for building a replacement for the deficient Jackson County Detention Center in downtown Kansas City.
“I’d particularly like to have someone working on all sorts of jail research right now,” said Scott Burnett, this year’s chairman of the legislature.
Burnett, Wooderson and other staffers spent seven hours one day recently working with the Kansas City design firm HOK, which issued a report last month on the jail’s deficiencies.
Legislators Tony Miller and Crystal Williams voted against the ordinance creating the jobs.
During the meeting, Miller asked for assurances from Waits that people hadn’t already been selected informally for the positions and that there would be an open hiring process.
Waits said anyone could apply for the jobs.
Miller added that he would oppose rehiring Thomas as the legislature’s chief financial officer, explaining that he disagreed with the administration’s spending practice that bypassed legislative oversight during Thomas’ tenure.
Williams said she was uncomfortable with the proposed pay ranges, saying the high salaries seemed hypocritical in light of legislators’ criticisms of the six-figure salaries several of White’s top aides pull down.
“I’m very torn about this,” she said. “I think some of these positions we do need.”
For the third legislative session in a row, White did not attend and top aides who were there did not offer an opinion on the legislature’s actions when offered a chance to speak.
Asked to comment, Hester issued the following statement:
“The County Executive was made aware of the Legislature’s proposed ordinance on Monday. As he does with all legislation, he will take the necessary time to thoroughly evaluate what was approved at today’s special legislative meeting.”