Thursday, June 20, 2024

Discussion for salary payback consumes BOCC meeting

Staff Writer | June 21, 2023 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — Bonner County commissioners spent a majority of their Tuesday morning meeting hearing public comment regarding a proposed “severance” package payback being considered for the county’s veteran services officer, who is retiring.

“The person that we’re talking about was hired at a rate below what it pays and was never brought up to that pay rate, which I think is a true injustice,” Commissioner Steve Bradshaw said.

The commissioners held an executive session about the matter last week but after being advised by legal counsel that matter should be a public discussion, it was put on the Tuesday agenda so residents could weigh in. While there was no discussion of an actual motion being made, commissioners wanted the public’s thoughts on whether they agreed that the employee in question should be compensated for the mistake.

Bradshaw said that regardless of what the board decided to do, he wanted to personally offer the employee $10,000 from his salary to make things right, as he felt it was the necessary thing to do.

“I’d give him $10,000 of my salary anyway just because of what he’s done for our veterans,” he added.

The commissioner asked anyone who thought that offering this individual a payback of the funds that were withheld was a bad idea, to come forward and speak their mind. Many individuals got up to speak to this discussion.

“As a taxpayer, I want my taxes to pay for goods and services, not severance packages,” one resident said.

A few others voiced concerns on where commissioners planned to get the money to offer to the employee when the county’s budget is already tight. Many others were upset that the word “severance” had been put on the agenda, claiming that such a payment should not be considered a severance package. Another resident said she didn’t see how it was fair that the commissioners were seeming to place more importance on the employee above all of the others in the county. If they considered a payback for the employee, she asked, wouldn’t they have to do the same for all the rest?

Not everyone who spoke seemed to be against the idea, however. One veteran said that regardless of what the payback was called, he felt that if the man was owed money, he should be paid it, no matter what that transaction was titled.

At the beginning of the meeting, the commissioner had said the individual was being paid $17 an hour, but it was later voiced that in fact, he was actually making over $12 more than that.

“The individual makes $29.15 which exceeds the actual expectation,” Commissioner Asia Williams said.

This mistake led to many audience members accusing Bradshaw of blatantly lying. However, the commissioner responded to these accusations by saying that the $17 wage was the number he was told and he was merely repeating what had been said to him regarding the matter. Regardless, this led to many questioning why the item was being brought forth for discussion if not even the commissioners had all the facts yet.

Additionally, Williams said the county was considering a payback amount of $60,000 based on the employee’s past experience and eight years of employment with the county. Williams also quipped that regardless of the employee’s military background, she had to look at this issue from a general perspective.

“It’s not right to act like if I say no, that I don’t care about veterans,” she said. “Because that’s not an accurate statement at all. We’re not talking about the individual; we’re talking about the process. We do not have a process in place that says: post-separation, we evaluate work product. This would be the first time.”

Williams said her job is not to think about how much she likes an individual or how great she thinks his work ethic is; her job – as well as the human resource department – is to go off the rubric for fair pay, which she said the county has successfully done in this case.

When residents continued to voice their disapproval of the issue, Bradshaw reminded the audience that a decision was not being made; the commissioners merely wanted a discussion for a issue that seemed wrong. When asked how he could view the wage as “wrong” when the employee was making above market value, Bradshaw responded that the replacement posted salary was much higher than what the individual was being paid.

“If we did that for every employee, we’d go bankrupt,” Williams responded.

Again, Bradshaw reminded the audience that this was merely a topic for discussion and a decision was not even on the table. He also added that the exact same things were discussed in the executive session and the topic was brought to the public as soon as legal counsel instructed the commissioners to do so.

“Is it wrong?” he asked. “If it is, can we fix it? If we were to try to fix it, how do we do that? What would that look like? That was the whole heart of the conversation. It was nothing more than that. And if we can’t [fix it], we can’t. And if we could, we should.”

Another resident stood up and asked the commissioner if this specific individual had worked on Bradshaw’s campaign, to which he responded that the employee had. This raised mumbles from the audience.

“The appearance of impropriety is strong here,” the commenter said.

The individual speculated that it seemed fishy that possibly the only county employee who had worked for Bradshaw’s campaign was now being considered for a $60,000 payback. However, Bradshaw told the commenter that he could think whatever he wanted, but the only reason this individual was being discussed was because the commissioners believed the county may have done him wrong.

The discussion ended shortly after this exchange. At the moment, it is expected that the topic will not reappear before the commissioners and no further discussion will be had on the matter, although that may change should a commissioner choose to reevaluate the issue.