LANCASTER — The second floor of the Garrard County Courthouse got overheated Thursday, and not just because the air conditioner was on the fritz.
Fiscal Court did manage to pass the county’s $10.1-million 2012-13 budget, but the special meeting took more than four hours to complete and was laced with angry words and personal attacks that at times seemed ready to spill over into physical confrontations.
Adding to the pressure, the budget had not yet even received first-reading approval, and statute requires it have two readings at least two weeks apart. With a July 1 deadline fast approaching, magistrates voted to declare an emergency at the beginning of the meeting so they could have the first and second readings of the budget approved on the same day.
The bone of contention Thursday, as it has been for more than a month of budget discussions, was the $68,500 salary of county Economic Development Director Nathan Mick, who was not present.
Magistrates Joe Leavell, Fred Simpson and Betty Holtzclaw voted to cut the county’s contribution to Mick’s salary from $68,500 to $50,000 and transfer Mick’s position to the county Industrial Development Authority, which would then become responsible for paying benefits.
But Magistrates Ronnie Lane and Doan Adkison, and Judge-Executive John Wilson voted no, leaving a 3-3 tie. A compromise proposal cutting the county’s contribution to $47,000 also failed, with Leavell, Holtzclaw and Simpson voting no.
The city of Lancaster has committed $10,000 toward Mick’s salary next year, and the IDA also has agreed to chip in $10,000. Leavell said previously that Mick should not be paid more than $50,000.
During the back and forth, Simpson told Wilson that people have grown tired of his leadership style that included giving Mick raises without consulting magistrates and force-feeding them a budget without properly explaining it. Simpson said he got more information about the county’s doings from newspaper accounts than he did from Wilson and blamed the stalemate over Mick’s salary on Wilson.
“It comes down to a vote of confidence,” Simpson said. “This administration has lost the confidence of the majority of the people in my district.”
Wilson said magistrates voted in 2009 to give raises based on merit and that Mick’s job performance made him deserving of the raises he has received.
After the two attempts to pass a budget failed, a recess was declared so Wilson could try to make adjustments and come back with a new proposal. It was after the magistrates reconvened that the temperature in the courtroom rose even more.
Businessman Holton Howard, who owns several properties around Lancaster, praised both Wilson and Mick for breathing new life into a stagnant community and blasted magistrates for failing to do their part in keeping up with county business.
“Nathan Mick has done a great job, and y’all want to cut his pay?” Howard asked pointedly, directing his question to Simpson. “What have you all done as magistrates? Why don’t you cut your own pay?”
Simpson acknowleged that he, Leavell and Holtzclaw should have paid closer attention to the budget process over the years instead of just signing off on it, but said “we were intimidated” by Wilson and threatened with lawsuits if they dared to challenge his leadership.
“John and Nathan are up-and-coming young men. They’re writing a narrative about turning a county around. There’s no room in that narrative for a Fiscal Court,” Simpson said. “We have not been sufficiently informed to allow us to carry out fiscal oversight of the county.”
He then added that, in his opinion, both Wilson and Mick “have done their jobs well.”
Wilson reminded magistrates that they had a full month to go over the budget and raise questions, and said “no tricks have been played on anybody.”
Lane entered the discussion by stating “I’ve got a high temper” and then proved it. When Simpson interrupted his talk, Lane told him to “shut up” and accused him of having a “smart-ass attitude.” When Leavell, seated next to Lane, turned quickly toward him, Lane seemed to take it as a challenge to fight. The exchange compelled Wilson to call for “order in the court.”
Howard also made an appeal for calm.
“We’ve got a lot of good things going on here. We don’t need to mess it up. We don’t need to let our city and our county die any more,” he said.
Lancaster Mayor Brenda Powers picked up on that theme when she took to the podium to praise Mick’s efforts to bring new ideas and jobs to the county. “Now our town is dead and it’s going to stay dead if you don’t let somebody help us,” Powers said. “Nathan works night and day for Lancaster. He’s got contacts beyond contacts. It’s a miracle Nathan Mick ever set foot in this town. The powers that be want Nathan Mick gone. This is wrong. Please.”
Finally, Wilson proposed what he called “the Joe Leavell demand budget” that reduced the county’s contribution to Mick’s salary from $47,000 to $30,000, with the extra $17,000 going into the county’s reserve. With $20,000 from the city and industrial authority included, the proposal set Mick’s salary at $50,000, the amount Leavell felt was right.
“You control three votes on this court,” Wilson said to Leavell. “This is exactly what you asked for at the May 14 meeting.”
The proposal passed unanimously, giving the budget its first reading. Magistrates went into an executive session to discuss pending litigation while Wilson’s staff conveyed the changes in the budget to officials in Frankfort for their approval.
Magistrates remained behind closed doors while waiting for Frankfort to sign off on the budget. From the hallway next to the courtroom, a loud, angry exchange between Simpson and Lane could be heard. Shortly afterward, Lane left the courtroom to get a drink.
“I need to cool off,” he said.
When magistrates reconvened in open court, they gave the budget unanimous approval on its second reading.
Then Leavell made a motion to cut Mick’s salary to reflect the budget that had just been officially approved. It died for lack of a second, leaving Mick’s pay at $68,500 for fiscal year 2012-2013 and only $50,000 budgeted to cover it.