Citing the confines of a shady 42-year-old state law, Missoula County commissioners on Thursday reluctantly approved a $3.4 million settlement stemming from a wage claim brought by current and former deputies of the Missoula County Sheriff's Department.

According to Erica Grinde, the county's director of risk and benefits, deputies allege they were entitled to three years' worth of unpaid wages based upon the earnings of the county sheriff and his additional pay earned through special certification.

“The deputies allege the base amount Missoula County used for the deputies didn't account for parity pay and certification pay, which was included in the sheriff's salary,” Grinde said. “The claim alleges that because those factors weren't included, it decreased the deputies' earnings.”

The lawsuit sought the recovery of three years' worth of pay stemming from what the sheriff earned through certification and parity pay. The suit was filed in January and claimed the county failed to calculate deputy pay based upon the full amount of the sheriff's pay, as required by Montana law.

Under state law, deputy pay is closely tied to the sheriff's pay. When the sheriff's pay increases for whatever reason, pay earned by the deputies must follow suit. The only acceptations include longevity pay and wages earned from the sheriff's additional office as county coroner, Grinde said.

“Montana law ties the deputies' pay to the sheriff's pay. When the sheriff's pay increased, the deputies' pay is supposed to follow behind,” Grinde said. “State statute requires the sheriff, along with the county, to establish a metrics to reflect what percent of the sheriff's base pay each of the deputies will be paid based upon rank.”

Grinde said state law was unclear on whether deputies should get a cut of extended earnings, such as certification and parity pay. But Legislation passed last year clarified the matter and said all earnings should be factored into the deputies' pay metrics.

“Missoula county had not included that certification pay and base pay," Grinde said. "The updated legislation clarified that those additional salary awards to the sheriff must be included in the pay rate in determining deputy pay. It's a practice Missoula County will be following the future.”

While that's the letter of the law, it didn't strike county commissioners as being fair. Certifications and other occupational efforts taken by one individual shouldn't necessarily funnel down to those who don't have the same resume.

“I get it legally – it's right. But morally, it feels not right,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.

The county also signed a general release on Thursday excusing all parties from the settlement. The litigation settles all wage claims for now, though Grinde said the compensation board is meeting, and she described it “as significant.”

“We will have to reevaluate the components of the sheriff's salary,” Grinde said. “This highlights something that staff has been talking about regarding the statutory framework around elected official pay. It's very limited what the compensation board is authorized to provide to elected officials.”

Commissioners also suggested that some county employees within the department could “double dip” by earning a certification themselves and also being entitled to a percent of the sheriff's pay when he or she earns certification.

“There's something that seems not quite right about, from a statutory standpoint, that someone would earn certification pay themselves and get a cut of someone else's certification pay,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

Grinde said the settlement wasn't easy to reach and took several days to conclude. She also expressed concern that the suit could take a toll on the morale of the sheriff's department and create division between officials.

“While it's a significant settlement and will be paid through a judgment levy, I hope the commission recognizes the value in settling it early in terms of the value of maintaining relationships with deputies,” she said, adding, “The county always seeks to engage in early resolution like this because it truly saves resources both financial and, in this case, significant non-financial resources.”