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COLUMBIANA CO. County settles layoffs dispute



Published: Thu, May 9, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The county will use a debt fund to pay for the settlement.

By NORMAN LEIGH

VINDICATOR SALEM BUREAU

LISBON -- Columbiana County has settled a legal dispute between its sheriff's department and furloughed corrections workers that has dragged on for more than five years.

Commissioners agreed to a deal Wednesday that calls for the county to pay the 26 former county jail workers a total of $296,800.

The settlement puts to rest a lawsuit first filed in 1997 and related legal entanglements.

"In the interest of all parties, it's best to accept this," Commissioner Sean Logan said.

"I'm glad it's over," Sheriff Dave Smith said.

A spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing the laid-off workers, was unavailable.

The county will pay the settlement from a debt obligation fund that now has a balance of about $400,000.

Prepared for settlement

Commissioner President Jim Hoppel noted that the county has been preparing for years for the possibility of a settlement and has been squirreling money.

The debt obligation fund is fueled by a 0.2-mill share of county property taxes. The fund receives about $250,000 annually and is used for various financial obligations.

The workers affected by the settlement are expected to get their money in about 30 days, said Atty. Walter Lucas of the Akron firm the county hired to represent it in the legal battle.

Hoppel and Logan said they believe the county got a good deal through the settlement.

The FOP originally had sought to force the county to reinstate the workers with back pay and benefits from the time they were laid off.

Had the FOP pursued that battle in court and won, the county's potential payment may have been more than $4 million, said John Barkan, a county labor adviser.

The deal means there will be no reinstatements or back pay.

The workers were idled by the sheriff's office in February 1997.

Layoffs contested

The FOP contested the furloughs, arguing that they violated a union labor contract.

The contract allowed layoffs only if there were a lack of funds or work. Neither situation existed, the union maintained.

In August 1997, an arbiter sided with the union, stating the layoffs were unjustified because funding was available in the county budget. He ordered the employees reinstated with back pay, which triggered another round of legal disputes.

In December 1997, the corrections workers no longer had jobs to return to, because the county contracted with a private company to run the lockup.

Some of the laid-off corrections workers landed jobs with the company.

Hoppel said that the county's decision to privatize the jail has saved the county about $4 million so far.

Besides paying for the settlement, the county must also pay the cost of its legal representation. The total bill as of now is about $327,916. Some of that obligation already has been paid, although it's not clear how much.

Money for attorney fees must come from the county's general fund.




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