Two court reporters with the Chattahoochee Circuit Superior Court were the highest paid employees in the Columbus Consolidated Government last year, according to city records.
And, because of a decision made in 1998, some will retire or have retired with pensions that far exceed the salaries they were paid, records show.
One reporter, Janice Hundley, made $156,807 and another, Bobby Russell, made $132,821, according to city records. The others made much less, but as a group, the city’s six court reporters cost taxpayers an average of about $100,000 in 2010, city records show.
“If we’re going to be fiscally responsible going forward, something has to change, and I believe that change has to occur now,” said City Manager Isaiah Hugley, who is ostensibly the highest paid city employee, at $132,583.
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Court reporters record by various methods everything that is said in court and transcribe the proceedings. The transcripts are necessary for judges to review cases and for lawyers to prepare appeals.
The six court reporters are actually modestly salaried city employees, each making between $21,000 and $24,000 a year, with benefits bumping their cost to taxpayers up to $32,000 to $36,000, according to Deputy Finance Director Britt Hayes. But they also sell their transcripts to the city, even though they were paid by the city to record them and in some cases used city facilities and city resources to create the transcripts, Hayes said.
Hayes and Chief Superior Court Judge John Allen briefed Columbus Council on the situation Tuesday.
Some reporters may transcribe only a few thousand pages a year, Hayes said, but those who work in criminal cases may produce more than 20,000, at a rate of $3.78 per page. Twenty-thousand pages at $3.78 per page would bring a reporter $75,600, in effect quadrupling his or her salary.
And thanks to a decision made in 1998, it similarly affects their pensions.
For example, Hundley, who had a salary in the low 20s, now collects a pension of almost $58,000 a year, according to city Human Resources Director Tom Barron. Raymond Campbell, another recently retired reporter, has a pension of $49,186, and Russell, who is nearing retirement, would qualify next year for a pension of $36,186, Barron said.
The pension glitch stems from a 1998 ordinance change by Columbus Council allowing the per-page fee to be included as part of the reporters’ Social Security, Hugley said. There was never an ordinance approving moving the per-page fee into the pension equation, Hugley said.
“We don’t believe that was the intent,” Hugley said.
Hundley, who was a reporter at the time, said she’s done nothing to artificially elevate her pension. She just operated in the system created by city leaders in 1998, she said, and if they want to change it now, that’s their prerogative.
“That’s up to them to decide,” she said. “This is just something the city decided to do. I’m happy about it. But if they offered you that deal where you work, you would take it, too.”
Columbus officials are in the process of doing something about the situation, Hugley said. He asked Stephen Condrey, president of Condrey & Associates, the human resources consultants who produced the city’s pay plan, to study the court reporter situation and make some recommendations.
Condrey responded with four possible options to rein in the spending.
One option would be to make the reporters independent contractors and pay them the state-mandated rate of $190.08 a day. This would reduce salary costs, but would leave the per-page fees as an undetermined variable, Hayes said.
“We do not recommend this option due to the long-standing custom of including these employees in your retirement system,” Condrey wrote.
Two other options would be to retain the recorders as full-time city employees, but at a higher salary and with no per page fees. One of these options would pay the recorders at the bottom of the GS-21 pay scale, or about $47,000. This would save the city about $200,000 a year, according to Condrey’s report.
But Condrey recommended that, because the existing reporters are veteran employees, they should be paid at the mid-range of GS-21, or about $58,700 a year, again with no per-page fees. This option would save the city $102,000, according to Condrey. The report recommended this option because of the “relatively long tenure of the incumbents.”
Hugley said that option would eliminate the per-page fees the city pays and the wild swings in income they bring and also the artificially elevated pensions.
It would not address another issue that is troubling city officials -- the fact that some court reporters report to work only eight to 10 days a year, but are still paid as full-time employees with health insurance and pension benefits, Hayes said. The rest of the time, they are free to pursue private work with attorneys, recording depositions and such.
Hundley disputed that assessment, saying that even when reporters aren’t actually at the Government Center, they are on call and must be available.
Allen said that discrepancy exists because a couple of reporters work all the criminal cases while the others work on civil cases. Civil cases are not recorded by the courts, but by and at the expense of attorneys. Those reporters make little in per-page charges, but still collect a full-time salary and receive insurance and pension benefits. Allen, the circuit’s chief judge, said that among the changes he would like to make would be to spread the criminal work out more equitably among the reporters.
Hugley, Allen and some of the city’s court reporters are scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the options Condrey presented. Hugley will then bring a recommendation to Columbus Council.
Russell said he would be at that meeting, but he also wishes he had known that Allen and Hayes were going to make an informational presentation to Council last Tuesday so he could have participated.
“The Council and (Hayes) do not have a clue as to what court reporters do,” Russell said. “He made us sound like criminals.”
Both Hundley and Russell said court reporters work long hours at night and on weekends to produce the transcripts. In fact, Russell said, for every hour he spends in court, he spends three hours producing and proofreading transcripts.
“When five o’clock comes around and council and other members of the government go home, that’s when our day starts,” Russell said. “That’s when we go home and start transcribing. Where they put in a 40-hour week, we put in a 60-hour week.”
It takes 18-36 months of training to become a court reporter, according to Barron, who recently attended an orientation at Brown College of Court Reporting in Atlanta to learn more about the position. They must then earn state certification.