Missoula, MT (KGVO-AM News) - A wage lawsuit has been filed against Missoula County by attorneys representing Missoula County Sheriff T.J. McDermott and numerous affected Missoula County Detention Officers.

KGVO News reached out to Rob Bell with the Reep, Bell and Jasper law firm for an explanation of the lawsuit and what it may mean to Missoula County taxpayers.

Basically, Bell said county officials gave themselves substantial raises without providing corresponding raises to the detention officers as required by law.

“What the case is about is the fact that the elected officials in the county, through the Compensation Board, voted themselves very substantial raises, and they called the raises something called longevity pay, which they did not pass along to the detention officers in the county or the sheriff in the county as they're required by law to do,” began Bell. “What's important to know here is that Montana law creates a very direct link between the salaries of law enforcement and the salaries of elected officials.”

Bell said county officials are using a mechanism called ‘longevity pay’ to avoid providing equal compensation to the correction officers.

“Instead of doing that, they doubled down on this notion that they can establish some separate pay benefits for the elected officials that they would not pass on to the sheriff to the deputies and to the detention officers,” he said. “The way they did that was they came up with this thing they call longevity pay.”

Bell provided examples of pay raises received by county officials.

“The average elected official’s salary went up between 2020 and 2022 by about $18,000 per year, while the Sheriff’s salary went down $6,064 per year in that same period,” he said. “Of course, that had the ripple effect of preventing deputies and detention officers from receiving the same salary increases that all of the other elected officials were giving themselves.”

Asked to clarify the intent of the county officials, Bell related what he personally witnessed at the Compensation Board meeting.

“Based on what I heard when I personally sat in and listened at the Compensation Board meetings, I think it's as simple as that the elected officials wanted to give one another raises and they did not want to pass those on to deputies and detention officers,” he said. “That's explicitly what was being talked about in those meetings that I sat in on. So I know that's the reason because that's what they said.”

According to a press release from the law firm, ‘Early estimates suggest that the county owes $2 to $3 million in unpaid wages’.

KGVO News reached out to the Missoula County Commissioners for a response to the lawsuit and received the following statement.

‘We value, respect, and appreciate the relationship we’ve worked to build with the Sheriff’s Office over the past several years, and it’s unfortunate we’re in this disagreement now. Missoula County disagrees with the pending litigation alleging that the sheriff was not appropriately compensated with longevity pay, which then affected detention officers' pay because their collective bargaining agreement (not state statute) ties detention officer pay to the sheriff's salary. We believe the recommendations from the Compensation Board complied with Montana law and are consistent with the way most other Montana counties compensate elected officials. Missoula County will not litigate this case in the media, but instead will work with the courts to reach a conclusion as efficiently as we can and with as minimal impact to taxpayers as possible.’

KGVO News has also learned that no matter what happens with the lawsuit, the financial burden will eventually be borne by Missoula County taxpayers.

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