CORUNNA — County Coordinator Brian Boggs defended the county board’s COVID-19 hazard pay and said the decisions were entirely based on an employee’s position, roles, responsibilities throughout the pandemic, and what COVID funding he or she had already received.
Boggs spoke Tuesday after news broke that following a legally questionable closed session, the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners Thursday authorized the disbursement of $557,000 worth of COVID-19 relief funding under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to county employees — with the bulk going to themselves and other elected officials rather than employees.
Top-level administrators received larger payments — up to $25,000 — while frontline employees garnered only $1,000 to $2,500.
Boggs pointed to employees’ prior participation in the Work Share Program and relief payments many received under the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act as partial reasoning for the smaller payments this time around. Elected officials, he said, were not eligible for those programs.
Furthermore, a premium payments provision under the American Rescue Plan Act allows for additional pay up to $13 per hour for all work, Boggs explained. Payments cannot exceed $25,000 per person and cannot reduce or substitute normal earnings, he said, adding retroactive pay is allowed.
“These numbers weren’t established in some willy-nilly manner,” Boggs said.
Commissioner Marlene Webster, R-District 1, Monday announced payments were made to commissioners and that she planned to return hers. The uneven distribution of COVID funds drew harsh criticism from Webster.
Webster said Tuesday she believes commissioners’ closed session was conducted in violation of the Open Meetings Act and that she was unaware Thursday that commissioners planned to give themselves any money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The funding breakdown written by Boggs shows top-level administrators in the county received $25,000 each from the COVID-19 relief funds while department heads each received $12,500. Middle management officials received $5,000 each and chief deputies, health department employees and attorneys received $2,500.
Cleaning staff received $2,000 each and all other county employees received $1,000.
Those receiving the maximum $25,000 payment include board Chairman Jeremy Root, R-District 5, Sheriff Brian BeGole, Health Director Larry Johnson, Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Tim Hill, Finance Director Tracy Bublitz and Boggs.
Commissioners John Plowman, R-District 7, and Brandon Marks, R-District 4, received $10,000 each, and the remaining commissioners — Webster, Gary Holzhausen, R-District 3, Greg Brodeur, R-District 2, and Cindy Garber, R-District 6, each received $5,000.
Commissioners’ yearly salaries are set at $10,000, with the vice chairman earning $10,500 and the chairman $11,000.
Other officials received varying amounts. Treasurer Julie Sorenson, Register of Deeds Lori Kimble, Prosecutor Scott Koerner, Undersheriff Cory Carson and Clerk Caroline Wilson received $12,500. Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Jeffrey Weiss received $10,000. Drain Commissioner Tony Newman received $2,500. Surveyor William Wascher, 66th District Court Judge Ward Clarkson and 35th Circuit Court Judge Matthew Stewart received nothing. The Road Commission also was left out entirely.
Newman declined to go into specifics when asked about the hazard pay disbursements Tuesday, saying only: “It should have been the same for everybody, right across the board.”
Root, Plowman and Marks did not return multiple phone messages left for them.
Webster said commissioners were told Thursday that county employees would receive and average of about $2,100, but she assumed that meant all would receive similar amounts. Instead, while the average is accurate, most of the county’s 250 employees will receive only $1,000. The motion was approved 6-0. Brodeur was absent.
Boggs said he worked with Plowman and Root to determine funding allocations for employees, though he did not set his own rate.
That was determined by the commissioners, he said.
“We divided them up according to what their roles and responsibilities were based on different things that have happened during COVID,” Boggs said. Johnson, for example, received the top payment of $25,000 due to his extensive work throughout the pandemic, according to Boggs.
Commissioners also devoted considerable time throughout the pandemic, Boggs said, noting Plowman helped him address retirement issues while Root, early on in the pandemic, oversaw the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
Overall, Boggs said, the hazard payments represent about 4 percent of the overall $13.3 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding, with 0.3 percent of the hazard pay disbursements going to commissioners.
“This was an effort to reward the county employees and this has become an issue about commissioners and that’s really unfortunate because this was optional,” Boggs said. “It was to the benefit of the employees and perhaps we should not pursue other ideas like this to get them additional funding if this is how it’s going to be received.”
Webster said after a resident mentioned commissioners getting money she initially denied it, but then checked her bank account and discovered the funds had been deposited, minus tax withholding. She told her husband to withdraw the money in the form of a cashier’s check and intends to return it to the county.
In addition to the amount of money commissioners received, Webster took issue with the closed session that preceded the vote.
She noted the hazard pay was not on any agendas prior to Thursday’s final meeting. That agenda only listed a personnel matter/legal opinion.
Webster, highlighting the Michigan Open Meetings Act, questioned the explanation of considering a legal opinion.
Personnel matters may only be conducted in closed session if they involve a performance review or disciplinary action — and only at the employee’s request.
“I protested. We should not be in here. We should not be in closed session. It wasn’t a union negotiation,” she said. “They said (county attorney) Ryan Painter said it was OK.”
Additionally, the OMA states the motion to go into a closed session should cite the section of the OMA and the statutory basis for the closed session.
Boggs justified the closed session Tuesday, citing contractual obligations. The county prosecutor was in attendance, he said, to offer an opinion related to COVID funding.
“Everyone received a payment. It was not just certain groups that received something, everyone received something, and we have contractual obligations with certain bargaining units and so that is an allowable item,” he said.