Benton County overpaid jailers $130,000 and took it back. Judge says it was done wrong

The Benton County Jail in Kennewick

The Benton County Jail at the Benton County Justice Center in west Kennewick has a capacity to house about 700 inmates.
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The Benton County Jail at the Benton County Justice Center in west Kennewick has a capacity to house about 700 inmates.

Benton County was wrong to automatically deduct money from 85 jail officers’ paychecks who were overpaid three years ago, a judge said this week.

The judge ruled that the county can’t just take the $130,000 back from the employees without first negotiating with their union.

Benton County Superior Court Judge Sam Swanberg upheld a March 6, 2018 decision by the Public Employee Relations Commission that Benton County must refund the money it deducted from paychecks and negotiate repayment terms with the union.

The PERC decision ordered the county to refund money it deducted from paychecks in 2017 — with interest — and bargain in good faith with the Teamsters.

Barring an appeal, Swanberg’s ruling ends a three-year battle over Benton County’s attempts to recover money it accidentally paid to jail workers in 2016 because of a computer software error. The sheriff’s office was not involved with the overpayments or the attempts to recover the money through payroll deductions.

County officials declined to comment on the decision, said spokeswoman Shyanne Palmus.

PERC, an independent state agency, has sided with the Teamsters twice.

Benton County appealed to Superior Court last year, saying PERC exceeded its authority and that the ruling was arbitrary and capricious.

Following a March hearing, Swanberg upheld PERC’s ruling and its authority.

“PERC’s decision, including all findings and conclusions, is not arbitrary and capricious,” he wrote in his brief order.

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A Benton County Sheriff corrections officer monitors computer and video screens in the master control room near the booking area of the Benton County jail facility in Kennewick. File Tri-City Herald

The Teamsters agree workers must repay the money, but say they have the right under the law to negotiate the terms.

“This could all have been avoided if the sheriff’s office would have agreed to follow the law and the union’s initial demand to bargain the impact and effect of the repayment back in November of 2016,” said Russell Shjerven, secretary-treasurer for the union.

Overpayment noticed in 2016

The Benton County auditor’s office detected the error in November 2016. Between June and September 2016, hours entered under the “kelly time used” or KTU pay code resulted in overpayments that averaged $1,500 over four months.

The county attempted to recover the money through payroll deductions, saying it complied with laws governing such situations.

It offered the affected employees a choice between having the full amount deducted from their paychecks, or to set an amount they wanted regularly deducted.

It later offered another choice, to repay money by cashing out accrued leave or compensatory times.

The Teamsters requested an opportunity to negotiate. Then-Sheriff Steve Keane offered to meet with the union but said at the time that bargaining and negotiations were the auditor’s responsibility.

Payroll deductions began in January 2017, shortly after the Teamsters filed the first unfair labor practice complaint.

Documents indicate two employees had involuntary deductions of $258 and $268, respectively, from their January 2017 paychecks. By August, the county had recovered the full amount.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the sheriff’s office was not involved with the overpayment or the payroll deductions at the center of the dispute.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.