Beaufort County magistrates with only a few years of experience soon could get the same pay as their longer-serving counterparts.
Beaufort County Council gave preliminary approval May 12 to supplement the state-mandated minimum pay for magistrates in their first four years of service.
The supplement would give four of the county's 13 magistrates an $8-per-hour raise, leveling every judge's pay at $38 per hour, according to Chief Magistrate Lawrence McElynn.
The council will consider the increase in a second reading at its meeting Tuesday in Bluffton. A third and final vote likely would take place in June.
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Under state law, magistrates in their first year of service receive only 80 percent of the position's state-mandated pay for veteran judges, McElynn said. Judges then receive 5 percent raises each year, as they learn on the job, until they reach the position's full salary, he added.
The full, $38-per-hour wage is determined by a state-mandated formula, which gives a magistrate an amount equal to a certain percentage of a Circuit Court judge's pay. The percentage is based on the population of the county in which the magistrate serves.
Under the current law, first-year judges are paid $30 per hour, second-year judges are paid $32 per hour, third-year judges are paid $34 per hour and fourth-year judges are paid $36 an hour, said McElynn, who reached five years of service and began receiving the full salary this spring.
The pay scale isn't fair, McElynn said, because the new judges have the same workload and hear the same types of cases as the more experienced judges. The stair-stepping pay hurts the court's ability to retain well-qualified, talented magistrates, he added.
"My position is, equal pay for equal work," McElynn said.
The increase would cost the court about $25,000 more per year, said McElynn. The additional expense would be offset by $60,000 gained by eliminating two redundant court staff positions, McElynn said.
State law sets magistrates' minimum salaries, but counties can augment their pay if they choose, county attorney Josh Gruber said.
However, council members Gerald Dawson and Bill McBride contend changes to magistrates' salaries should be handled by the state legislature.
"It is a legislative responsibility," Dawson said. "We at the county level have no legal rights, in my opinion, to make this move, and I think we're setting a bad precedent."
Approving the increase could lead state legislators to think the county has more money than it needs and send less state support as a result, McBride argued.
Dawson and McBride cast the only dissenting votes on the increase on May 12. Councilman Tabor Vaux has recused himself from the votes and discussion because his wife, Erin Vaux, is a magistrate.
Beaufort County's magistrates are highly qualified and deserve the full salary from the start, Councilman Stu Rodman said. Nine of the county's 13 magistrates are attorneys and the other four have advanced degrees, McElynn added.
In February, Angela McCall-Tanner was appointed as the court's 13th magistrate. McCall-Tanner, married to Sheriff P.J. Tanner, served a dozen years in the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office and was most recently the Bluffton Police Department's chief of staff.
Magistrates received a state-mandated salary increase in 2012 when U.S. Census data confirmed Beaufort County's population grew to more than 150,000.
At the time, County Council voted to adopt the new pay rate four months after the figures were confirmed, at the start of the new fiscal year. Beth Prince, David Taub and McElynn -- who are all still magistrates -- challenged that decision in Circuit Court, which struck down the council's vote and required the county to give $20,000 in retroactive pay to the judges.
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.