CORUNNA — The Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners and all other county elected officials Friday unanimously agreed to return their COVID-19 hazard payments following widespread criticism from area residents.
“Since these payments were made, confusion about the nature of these funds has run rampant,” commissioners said in a joint press release Friday. “(We) deeply regret that this gesture has been misinterpreted, and have unanimously decided to voluntarily return the funds to the county, pending additional guidance from the state of Michigan.”
Commissioners July 15 authorized the disbursement of $557,000 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. This uneven disbursement drew sharp criticism from area residents, Commissioners Marlene Webster, R-District 1, and Gregory Brodeur, R-District 2, and U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint.
“It’s wrong, and I will be working in the coming days to address this issue with legislation and protect taxpayers,” Moolenaar said in an emailed statement earlier Friday.
“In March, Republicans argued for a targeted approach to help in our nation’s fight against COVID-19,” he continued. “However, Democrats in Congress insisted on a partisan $2-trillion spending bill that sent $350 billion to states and communities regardless of whether or not those communities needed the money. Those Democrats failed to put in safeguards against wasteful spending and now local elected officials are inappropriately using the money from the $2 trillion bill.”
Kildee also criticized the payments this week, telling media outlets they violated the spirit of the federal payments.
“American Rescue Plan dollars were intended to help frontline workers and families impacted by the pandemic, not elected officials,” he told WJRT TV. “I do not believe that the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners’ use of American Rescue Plan funds are an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars.”
While Webster agreed in a phone conversation with Boggs Friday that all elected officials should return their hazard pay funds, she took issue with the way the commissioners' statement was worded.
"We did NOT misinterpret these actions. That's an insult to the citizens of Shiawassee County," Webster wrote in a Facebook post Friday evening. "If anything was MISINTERPRETED, it was MY vote! Somebody decided that my vote to give an average of $2,148 to county employees meant that I would be okay with giving $1,000 to 90 percent of employees so a few at the top could take $25,000 for themselves."
County Prosecutor Scott Koerner, in a statement Friday, said he believes the payments to county elected officials, including a $12,500 payment he received, violated the Michigan Constitution.
Article 11, Section 3 of the Constitution prohibits “any political subdivision” of Michigan from paying out “extra compensation for public officers and contractors after services had already been rendered,” he said.
“Like any other hard-working employee anywhere, I appreciate being considered for recognition of a job well done, but as an elected official I knew what my salary would be when I ran for office,” Koerner said. “While COVID-19 certainly threw wrenches into all aspects of my job, it was part of my job to perform those duties and I did so willingly. Not only am I not entitled to this money because of the Michigan Constitution, but me giving the money back is just the right thing to do. I still hope that the hard-working frontline employees of the county continue to benefit from these monies — they are the ones who deserve it.”
Monday, Webster revealed she and other commissioners had received payments from the American Rescue Plan Act. The county will receive more than $13 million in funding through the act, including approximately $6.5-million this year.
Webster told The Argus-Press Tuesday that she was shocked to find out money she thought she was voting to give to employees had partially gone to commissioners and other elected officials.
Board Chairman Jeremy Root, R-District 5, received $25,000. In addition, Sheriff Brian BeGole, County Coordinator Brian Boggs, Finance Director Tracy Bublitz, Health Director Larry Johnson, and Buildings and Grounds Supervisor Tim Hill each also received $25,000.
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, Brodeur 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.
“Funds like these have never been received before, and very little guidance was provided by either the federal government or the state of Michigan regarding their use,” commissioners said in the Friday release, adding “(We) look forward to receiving such guidance from the state in the near future.”
Treasurer Julie Sorenson, Register of Deeds Lori Kimble, Koerner, Undersheriff Cory Carson and Clerk Caroline Wilson received hazard payments of $12,500. Drain Commissioner Tony Newman received $2,500, while Surveyor William Wascher, 66th District Court Judge Ward Clarkson, Probate Court Judge Thomas Dignan and 35th Circuit Court Judge Matthew Stewart received nothing. The Road Commission also was left out entirely.
The rest of the county’s 200-plus employees received mostly $2,500 or $1,000 from the $557,000 payout.
Boggs, despite not being an elected official, said he, too, will return his $25,000 payment to the county “out of solidarity with the commissioners.”
The shift comes just 24 hours after an Owosso woman filed a lawsuit in 35th Circuit Court alleging commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act July 15 by discussing the hazard payments in closed session.
Webster noted the hazard pay was not on any agendas prior to Thursday’s final meeting — the agenda only listed a personnel matter/legal opinion.
“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. Koerner was in attendance, Boggs 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.
Koerner acknowledged that while he did attend the board of commissioners’ meeting, it was only to discuss “staffing levels at my office in light of a backlog of cases created by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“I knew hazard pay was going to be a topic of conversation for the board, but I wasn’t a party to that conversation,” Koerner said “The board never requested my legal opinion about COVID hazard pay and I didn’t provide them with one.”