The Hempstead County Quorum Court let its displeasure be known Thursday night over the purchase of a County Judge's truck by Haskell Morse as well as the county's “Catastrophic Leave” policy, an extra paid employee benefit above and beyond conventional paid vacation and sick days that most private section workers receive.
The Hempstead County Quorum Court let its displeasure be known Thursday night over the purchase of a County Judge’s truck by Haskell Morse as well as the county’s “Catastrophic Leave” policy, an extra paid employee benefit above and beyond conventional paid vacation and sick days that most private section workers receive.
Spearheading the discussion of the truck purchase, which was first reported in the Hope Star’s June 3 edition, Justice Ed Darling said, “As a member of this court, the justices have certain responsibilities for budgeting and approving purchases, and I think the people expect that we exercise prudence in our purchasing; I don’t believe the recent truck purchase out of the road department doesn’t meet that criteria. It was extravagant, and I’ve had complaints about it.”
Justice David Clayton said, “I’ve had complaints. It looks bad, and we are getting our asses chewed.”
Three other justices also said they had received phone calls and complaints, with Justice Monica Johnson, saying “I don’t know what to tell people.”
Darling made a motion that all vehicle and major machine purchases be approved by the Quorum Court, regardless of whether they were previously budgeted or not.
The pickup truck valued at $64,786 was purchased by Morse with county road funds on April 25. Morse told the justices that $50,000 is allocated in the county roads budget for truck purchases every year.
Documents previously obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the Hope Star also confirmed a trade-in of the former County Judge’s truck at $25,775, leaving a actual purchase amount balance totaling $36,611, which as paid out of the county road fund.
Although several of the justices conceded Morse did nothing illegal or out of the realm of his authority, Clayton said, “This looks bad. You should have bought a government contract truck like everyone else. For $50,000, you could probably buy two.”
A citizen, Emily McDonald, told Morse and the Quorum Court that her county road was in horrible shape, and expressed her objections that a truck was bought out of the road funds. McDonald also questioned Morse directly on whether or not he was using the truck on personal business.
“Are you going to the grocery store? Are you going to Little Rock on the weekends?” she asked.
Clayton defended Morse on the point of taking the truck home to McDonald, saying “He has a job where is he literally on call 24-7; I have no trouble with him taking the truck home.”
McDonald said she felt Morse bought an extravagant truck with county money when a simple truck would do.
“I don’t understand,” she said/
Justice Cherry Stewart questioned what policy, if any existed, for County Judges purchasing trucks, but then she said, the former County Judge (Wallace Martin) must have also bought an expensive truck due to the trade-in that Morse received.
Stewart also said that she had no issue with the truck saying that Morse paid $36,000, not $50,000, but Justice Lynn Montgomery said “It is still a $65,000 truck.”
Stewart countered saying Morse didn’t pay that, but Montgomery “Yes, we did. They got the old truck that we also paid for as a trade in.”
Stewart also said she thinks trucks should not be bought out of town and praised Morse for buying it locally.
“Those state contract trucks he was talking about are bought somewhere in Little Rock; we need to keep the money here. We need all the help we can get,” Stewart said.
Darling’s motion was approved, and Morse himself apologized “for the problem.”
The truck wasn’t the only source of outcry Thursday evening as what was expected to be a personnel policy revision turned into a source of contention on its own.
Morse brought up a request to approve an employee’s “Catastrophic Leave” revision, which would require a medical necessity for the employee, and would require the employee first exhaust all vacation, sick and comp time.
The revision also excluded maternity, cosmetic, and “non-medically necessary procedures.”
It was when Morse explained that the policy provided for up to six weeks in paid leave in addition to paid vacation and paid sick leave that the justices began howling.
Clayton, who happens to work for a governmental entity himself at Hope Water & Light, said, “I don’t know of any employer that does this.”
Darling said, “It seems like a lot, like very generous,” as other justices said their employers in the private section also didn’t have that added paid benefit.
Darling asked, “Now, how much does this cost the county every year?” but he did not receive an answer, with Morse simply saying he didn’t know.
Morse said it has been a standing practice for years within county government, and he said other counties did the same thing.
Morse said in the past that it was considered “a perk” for county employees, who had medical issues, but could still keep paid vacation time.
Darling said, “Well, I think there needs to be a comprehensive review of all these employee policies across the board.”
County Treasurer Judy Flowers, however, defended the policy saying benefits were need to retain good employees to “make up” for low county pay.
The revision change was eventually approved, but by a vote of 8-to-3 with Darling, Stewart and Jessie Henry voting no.