Tarrant district attorney in dispute over salary

Posted Thursday, Sep. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Confusion and a high-level dispute over what the district attorney should be paid has clouded Tarrant County’s new budget, a dilemma complicated by the fragmented structure of that pay.

It must be resolved.

Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon was first appointed to the job by Gov. Rick Perry in 2009 after the death of longtime DA Tim Curry.

Shannon, the former chief of the economic crimes unit in the DA’S office, at the time had been receiving almost $37,000 a year in state retirement benefits for his prior service as a state representative and in other state jobs.

But in his new job under restrictions in effect at the time, he could no longer get the money from the Employment Retirement System of Texas that he had been drawing for about 20 years.

Shannon says that was fine with him. He wasn’t married, and he was to receive a salary of $218,000 a year — what the long-serving Curry had been making as the highest-paid DA in the state.

About a year ago, under a new state statute, Shannon again began receiving retirement benefits, about $33,500 annually, in addition to his salary, which by then had grown to 224,279.

For their part, county commissioners long had wanted to bring the DA’s pay back in line with those in other major Texas counties, says County Judge Glen Whitley.

Shannon said he proposed a reduction in his salary equal to the amount of his annual retirement pay, a source of income he says he now needs as a “survivor’s benefit” for his new wife.

Complicating matters further is that district attorneys are paid by both the state and the county. This year the Legislature voted to give district judges and elected prosecutors a $15,000 raise, putting their pay at $140,000 plus any additional income coming from the county in which they work.

With that increase, Shannon’s salary beginning in October would have been $239,279. County commissioners, however, reduced the annual income to $193,402 when they adopted the new county budget that takes effect Oct. 1.

Shannon says his new pay denies him the $15,000 raise the Legislature intended.

Whitley admits that commissioners, in calculating the DA’s salary for the coming budget year, reduced the county’s contribution by the amount of Shannon’s retirement pay plus the $15,000 raise from the state, for a total pay decrease of $48,500.

Whitley is quick to note that it is the commissioners court’s responsibility to set salaries, and the new pay scale is more in line with the pay received by DAs in other large urban Texas counties.

Dallas County, he said, is the only one paying more than Tarrant, with Harris, Bexar and Travis counties all paying much less.

Disputes between county officials are not uncommon, particularly when it comes to budgets and salaries. The lack of clear communication and negotiation in the closing weeks before the new budget was adopted contributed to the dispute about Shannon’s pay.

While the commissioners have the right to cut their part of the DA’s salary, denying him a legislatively approved benefit appears more personal or political than fiscally responsible.

Whitley insists there was no political motive.

Since the budget has already been adopted, re-addressing the issue will be awkward — but not impossible.

Commissioners should increase Shannon’s salary by the $15,000 authorized by the state, which still means he’ll be giving up an amount equal to his retirement income.

Then the commissioners court should adopt a resolution outlining the pay range for the position, effective with the election or appointment of the next DA.

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