The Douglas County Board of Commissioners will decide if and how much of a salary and budget increase will be given to probate judge-elect Christina Peterson when they adopt the 2021 budget next week.
During a Dec. 1 BOC meeting, Peterson made a plea to have her salary nearly doubled from her predecessor, Hal Hamrick, along with a $344,000 budget increase to hire five additional staff members.
Because the county’s population is above 96,000 residents, the probate position calls for a judge with a law degree and at least seven years of practicing experience.
Peterson defeated local attorney Leonard Danley in the Democratic primary in June to win the probate judgeship with no Republicans on the ballot in November. Hamrick, who doesn’t have a law degree, was elected in 2004 and is retiring after four terms.
Despite no experience in her newly-elected position, Peterson said the pay increase is justified because of her credentials.
“I’m not asking for a favor, I just want you all to continue to be fair,” Peterson told the BOC during the virtual meeting.
However, Douglas County Chief Superior Court Judge David Emerson doesn’t believe Peterson’s duties or workload will change even though as an attorney she is able to hold jury trials.
Emerson said out of his 29 years as a superior court judge, he has had only one case come to him out of probate court.
“It doesn’t happen that often,” Emerson said. “Her being elected didn’t change the fundamental function of the court.”
Probate judges in the state administer wills and estates, appoint and oversee guardians and conservators, and issue marriage and weapons carry licenses, according to the Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia.
Some probate judges handle adjudicating traffic offenses and misdemeanors, but those cases are handled here by the Douglas County State Court. Vital records such as birth and death certificates are also a function some probate courts, including Douglas, handle.
Hamrick, who spent 16 years in the position, made $96,500 in his final year. Peterson is asking for $175,000, which is top salary for the position as it moves to an Article VI court. Commissioner Henry Mitchell said earlier this month the BOC was looking at giving Peterson around $130,000 in salary.
Hamrick’s salary is comparable with the salaries of probate judges in two neighboring counties with similar populations — Carroll and Paulding. And the judges in those counties are attorneys just like Peterson.
Carroll County’s probate judge makes $83,913 a year, according to a Fox 5 television report. In neighboring Paulding County, according to the report, that probate judge makes $115,000, which includes the duties of traffic cases.
“The probate court in this county is simply not busy enough, compared to similarly situated counties in the area, for all the additional staff she is requesting,” local attorney Miranda Jordan wrote in a letter to BOC members.
Emerson said that the judges were asked to cut their budgets by 6% and have to furlough staff for a week.
Emerson pointed out in a letter to Douglas County Commission Chairman Romona Jackson Jones that he shares a law clerk with two other judges.
“The budget is tight,” Emerson said. “I’m trying to make sure all my staff gets paid. I don’t know where they are going to get this money from.”
When the BOC approved a 27.8% property tax increase in August, they pledged to cut spending and tighten the budget in the upcoming year.
The budget presented to commissioners Dec. 1 totaled $98.2 million and included 8.25% across-the-board cuts.
But District 4 County Commissioner Ann Jones Guider, who voted against the 2020 budget and tax increase, warned that the other members of the BOC could add items at the last minute, such as reinstating Tax Commissioner Greg Baker’s $150,000 discretionary fund, which no other county official receives. The BOC voted to spend $120,000 on three part-time assistants for three part-time commissioners at the last minute during the budget adoption meeting last year.
Recently, the BOC approved by a 4-1 vote the contracts for three on-call back-up deputy coroners and the replacement position of another deputy coroner.
The BOC has come under constant fire from citizens about their spending and over budget items.
“This board has a spending problem,” resident Sharon Bachtel has said on several public speaking occasions to the BOC.
The BOC is expected to adopt the 2021 budget on Tuesday at its 6 p.m. regular meeting.
Anyone who would like to speak at the Tuesday budget hearing should contact County Clerk Lisa Watson at 770-920-7266 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watson said citizens may access the Monday BOC work session which starts at 10 a.m. by calling in through the Conference Call-in number: 229-302-4628, Conference ID: 465 442 805#.
She said citizens may access Tuesday’s 6 p.m. voting meeting by calling 229-302-4628, Conference ID: 762 986 880#.
“We will not deny anyone to speak if they did not register, however if they do not register, they will have to use the call in number rather than joining through Microsoft Teams,” Watson said.