SOUTH BEND — What one St. Joseph County official criticized as “astronomically large” pay raises for two employees another defended as potential cost savings of “tens of thousands of dollars.”
County Commissioner Dave Thomas and county Auditor Mike Hamman debated large pay raises for the county’s director of procurement and a procurement clerk.
Action on the matter fizzled at the Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday, with only two of the three members in attendance.
The county may be on the hook for the pay increases, taxes and benefits anyway, without any action by the commissioners, unless they would veto it within the next 10 days, said Thomas, a Democrat, who opposed the expenditure when the county is facing expected revenue shortfalls because of the coronavirus shuttering the economy.
Republican Commissioner Deb Fleming said she would have voted in favor of the raises. The third commissioner, Republican Andy Kostielney, was absent.
The County Council passed the salary proposal on May 12, by a vote of 8 to 1, with Republican council member Mark Telloyan voting against it.
The salary request is for an additional $6,307 in pay for the county’s director of procurement, and an extra $3,912 in pay for a procurement clerk, plus more taxes and benefits. The current salaries are $43,693 for the director and $28,088 for the clerk, according to Hamman. The raises amount to about 14% increases.
The director of procurement, Bree Roberts, is Hamman’s stepdaughter.
Roberts has essentially been doing two jobs this year, Hamann said at the Tuesday meeting.
He said Roberts has been doing her regular job leading the procurement office, which falls under control of the commissioners, and also “bird dogging” implementation of a new county finance software system, a project the auditor’s office is leading.
Commissioners had thought about spending $50,000 to hire a manager for the software project, Hamann said, but decided against it.
Hamann later said he is managing the software project and Roberts is the project manager for it, but he is not her supervisor, and she remains a commissioners’ employee.
In 2016, the intersection between Hamann’s then-new job as auditor and the job Roberts had held in the auditor’s office since 2013, and her then-new job as director of procurement, was the subject of deliberation by local and state officials. State officials said there was no violation of anti-nepotism laws because Hamann was not Roberts’ direct supervisor. She moved from the auditor’s office to the procurement position in 2016.
Commissioners at that time considered moving Roberts’ department under Hamman’s supervision but decided against it because of the relationship.
Hamman denied his advocacy for the pay increase was a conflict of interest.
“I wouldn’t have said a word today had Andy Kostielney been there,” Hamann said.
Kostielney told the County Council on May 12 that commissioners wanted to compensate Roberts and the clerk for extra work they’ve been taking on, which is sparing the county the expense of hiring a manager for the project. “It’s still an overall cost savings,” he said at the time.
In fact, the raises would be cheaper for the county, Hamman argued.
“If your big concern is about saving money,” Hamann said to Thomas on Tuesday, “if you approve this, you’re saving tens of thousands of dollars because you’re having one person do two jobs basically.”
Thomas said the money for the two positions amounted to pay raises of about 14% for each, which he called “astronomically large” and “out of line.”
He questioned the need for increases when the software system won’t be implemented for another two years and county offices have been shut to the public with many employees working from home for the past couple of months.
“With all due respect, sir,” Roberts said, “my two employees have been at home, and I have been running the entire department from my home, but I’m sure the county departments would back me up and say that I have been extremely available to them while also implementing the (software project), which is well underway. … I’ve been working well over 80 hours for every pay period.”
Thomas said Tuesday he was in favor of “saving money, not just spending less.”
He also noted that with the proposed pay bump, the salary for procurement director will have been hiked overall about 33% from where it was five years ago, from about $37,500 to nearly $50,000.
“That’s just not justifiable considering the other 1,350 county employees we have,” Thomas said.
Hamann noted Thomas has been opposed to the software project, and Thomas agreed and called it a “gross waste of money.”
The $2.1 million project is creating an integrated finance tracking system for county departments to replace the current “patchwork” approach, Hamann said.