Estes, commission still at odds

Cole County Assessor Chris Estes received county commissioners’ approval Wednesday for a couple of raises in his office — for the rest of this year.

But the approval came with commissioners’ reminder that the change isn’t guaranteed to continue next year.

That launched a renewed verbal battle over Estes’ power to operate his own office.

“You’ve always just done what you wanted to do, regardless of what I’ve asked you to do,” Estes said. “It would be my decision what somebody gets paid in my office, my decision what this position is worth.

“Because I’m the one who’s over there, seeing what goes on every day — you guys aren’t.”

The pay increases are possible because Estes has an employee vacancy in his office right now.

“I’m unable to keep people because you all are giving out my funds with an eyedropper,” Estes told the commission. “I have one person who’s left and another person who’ll be gone in less than a month.”

He didn’t answer commissioners’ questions if there were other reasons for employees leaving the assessor’s office.

Presiding Commissioner Marc Ellinger told Estes: “I just want to make sure that we all understand, if you fill the empty slots next year ... signing these pay forms is not an agreement that we will adjust your salary budget next year.”

Wednesday’s sometimes heated conversation was the latest volley in an ongoing battle.

Last year, the assessor refused to pay the commissioners’ $39,411 bill for computer and technology expenses, and the commission ordered those services turned off on Jan. 2, 2013.

Estes sued, and got the services restored in the court case.

In April, Cole County Senior Judge Byron Kinder ruled that Estes owed the money to the commission. That ruling has been appealed to the state’s Western District appeals court in Kansas City.

Estes told commissioners they are ignoring state Supreme Court rulings that support his contention that he’s responsible for his own payroll decisions.

A 1985 high court ruling said county commissioners don’t have the power to tell the assessor who to hire.

A 1992 ruling said the assessor decides how much to pay his or her employees — once the commission budgets the general amount.

But a new law, passed in 1992, said the commission approves salaries for county officers, deputies and assistants.

Ellinger, who is an attorney, said the Supreme Court rulings aren’t specifically about Estes’ disagreement with the Cole County commission.

“The law says what the law says,” Ellinger said. “That’s why you pay lawyers, and why cases go to the Supreme Court all the time.”

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