Police pay parity suit draws response, counterclaim from Texarkana, Ark.

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The City of Texarkana, Ark., claims it cannot pay its police officers at the same rate the City of Texarkana, Texas, pays its police officers, in a response and counterclaim filed recently in response to a lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed in Miller County Circuit Court in December on behalf of 86 Texarkana, Ark., residents alleges that Texarkana, Ark., has failed to keep its police officers’ pay in keeping with its Texas-side counterparts despite having established a .25 percent sales tax through a 1996 city ordinance to be used for that purpose. The suit complains that the lack of pay parity means the best and brightest will seek jobs in Texarkana, Texas, and that those working in Texarkana, Ark., will leave for identical jobs across the state line. Texarkana, Ark., Mayor Ruth Penney Bell and Texarkana, Ark., City Manager Kenny Haskin are named as defendants.

In a counterclaim to the suit filed Friday, the City of Texarkana, Ark., alleges that the 1996 ordinance is unconstitutional and unenforceable and that the sales tax revenue isn’t enough to keep up with Texas-side pay.

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“Although this sales tax provides income for the City of Texarkana, Ark., for the purposes of paying salaries on behalf of the Texarkana, Ark., Police Department, the funds raised by this sales tax are insufficient to pay the parity requirement of this ordinance,” the counterclaim states. “To the extent that this ordinance requires the City of Texarkana, Ark., to match the salaries of the police department for the City of Texarkana, Texas, this ordinance is unconstitutional.”

The City of Texarkana, Ark., claims that the 1996 ordinance essentially gives Texarkana, Texas, the authority to set the salaries of Texarkana, Ark., police. Texarkana, Ark., claims that policy is in violation of Arkansas law and the state’s constitution which give a city’s government the sole power to set the “number and salaries of fire and police personnel.”

The suit does not address the salaries of Texarkana, Ark., Fire Department employees.

The complaint filed in December by Texarkana lawyers Brent Langdon and Nick Newton alleges that the sale tax revenues should be more than enough to keep Arkansas-side officers’ pay equal to that of officers in Texarkana, Texas and that the city must be using the money for purposes other than that for which it was intended. Texarkana, Ark., denies that allegation in its response.

“The sales and use tax collected on behalf of the City of Texarkana, Ark., is insufficient to pay police salaries determined by the City of Texarkana, Texas. The City of Texarkana, Arkansas, should not be and cannot be required to match those salary levels of the City of Texarkana, Texas, Police Department. Again, this violates the Arkansas Constitution and Arkansas State law,” the response states.

The plaintiffs are asking that the City of Texarkana, Ark., be required to set aside all monies collected through the sales tax created by the 1996 ordinance and account for them separately. The plaintiffs request that the court force the city manager to pay current and former police officers the difference between what they have been paid and what they would be paid if earning in parity with the Texas side “and as defined by the court.” The plaintiffs want the court to assume an oversight role in the matter by “receiving reports and information concerning the administration of the collection of the tax and payment of the funds or resolving disputes between the parties.”

The plaintiffs’ suit asks that if the court determines the 1996 pay parity ordinance is unconstitutional or invalid for some other reason that the court prohibit the City of Texarkana, Ark., from collecting the tax in the future and that the court create a method by which the sales tax will be refunded to those who have paid it.

The City of Texarkana, Ark., is asking that the court enter an order finding that it is not required to match the salaries of Texarkana, Texas, police officers and that pay parity is unconstitutional, illegal and in violation of state law. The city also requests a court order declaring that the sales tax is constitutional and will be used to pay police salaries but that the city is not required to supplement those funds to reach police pay levels on par with Texarkana, Texas.

The City of Texarkana’s response and counterclaim asks the court to find that only the city’s Board of Directors can establish the number of police department employees and the salaries of those staff.

Both sides are asking the court to order the opposing party to pay court costs and attorney fees.

The case was initially assigned to Circuit Judge Brent Haltom but Haltom recused himself Dec. 22 and the case was assigned to Circuit Judge Carlton Jones. Jones recusd himself from the case Jan. 9 and the case is currently assigned to Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson. If Johnson recuses, the case will be assigned by the Arkansas Supreme Court to a judge outside the 8th Judicial District South, which serves Miller and Lafayette Counties. No hearings are scheduled at this time.

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