SUNBURY - Northumberland County Commissioner Chairman Vinny Clausi relented Tuesday and said he will schedule a salary board meeting to discuss benefits for the county's two deputy coroners.

Coroner James F. Kelley addressed the commissioners at their meeting, imploring them to convene the salary board to discuss Clausi and Commissioner Stephen Bridy's Dec. 27 vote to enforce a salary board policy that prohibits part-time employees from receiving full-time benefits.

Kelley argues that his chief deputy, James Gotlob, of Sunbury, is full time and should be able to receive health care insurance at the same rate paid by other county employees rather than 50 percent of the county's premium.

The change in premium will be in effective as of Saturday, raising the rate for Gotlob, who has a two-party plan, from $175 to $694 a month, or from $2,100 to $8,328 a year, if he chooses to keep the county coverage. The new annual rate would represent more than 56 percent of his $14,762 salary.

The deputy coroners are not eligible for other full-time benefits such as vacation time, holiday pay or pensions.

Clausi scheduled the salary board meeting for Feb. 25. The board consists of the three commissioners, the controller and the department head requesting a salary change, in this case Kelley.

'Compromise' by Kelley

At Tuesday's meeting, Kelley said he'd compromise in considering deputy Barry Leisenring is part-time, but maintained Gotlob has been his full-time chief deputy since 2002 when the coroner's office was restructured.

The coroner has previously said his deputies' 24/7 on-call status gives them full-time status, and that they deserve to keep full-time benefits because of the health risks inherent in their jobs. He has said that they might resign due to the change.

Clausi said minutes of previous salary board meetings do not say anything about paying benefits for the deputy coroners or that the chief deputy is considered full time. He said the receipt of benefits by part-time employees over the past decade or more has cost taxpayers some $500,000, and he suggests it amounts to "fraud."

Kelley acknowledged he received health care benefits while he was a deputy coroner, but that he did so because the county offered the coverage.

Clausi has said before that new Controller Chris Grayson has said he'll support Kelley, as will Commissioner Rick Shoch, meaning the salary board vote is a foregone conclusion, 3-2 in Kelley's favor. That's why he has resisted a meeting. Clausi and Bridy have previously said such a vote could prompt more of the county's 113 part-time workers to demand cheaper health care rates.

Shoch told Clausi a department head has a legal right to call a salary board meeting, and the commissioners can either avoid embarrassment by granting it or take the expensive way by having Kelley force them to meet.

Clausi said other than Feb. 25, no more salary board meetings would be scheduled the rest of the year. Shoch said commissioners cannot legally prevent the meetings from being held.

The county has estimated annual savings by eliminating full-time benefits for the deputies and a part-time assessor, as well as those paid to the two now-defunct jury commissioner positions, at $52,000.

Clausi said after the meeting that if the county continues to "waste" money by paying benefits for deputy coroners, it will find itself in the same situation as Shamokin. He was critical of a practice, recently stopped, whereby part-time elected officials received health care coverage paid mostly by the city.

"I worked so hard to save money; now we're going to give it away," he said.

Employee salute and dispute

The naming of solicitor Frank Garrigan as employee of the month prompted an argument between Clausi and Shoch, and Garrigan eventually declined the recognition.

Shoch said he respected Garrigan as an employee, but suggested the honor was a political reward for agreeing with Clausi and Bridy. He said Garrigan's nomination did not go through the normal process involving all three commissioners and because of that it lacked meaning.

Clausi, who said he took responsibility for nominating Garrigan, said Shoch was a "disgrace" for not wanting to recognize the solicitor for his role in securing $1 million from the Degenstein Foundation toward preserving county historical records.

Garrigan said all recognition should be given to the foundation.

Clausi said after the meeting that Shoch having any role in the situation was misrepresented by his comments as reported in The News-Item. Shoch said in a Jan. 18 article that he reached out to the foundation three weeks ago, and that Garrigan followed up after a meeting with Shoch, Clausi, Bridy, planning director Pat Mack, grants manager Kathy Jeremiah and solicitor John Muncer, and secured the pledge.

Shoch said later Tuesday he did make contact with the foundation.

"If anyone has any questions as to what my role was, or lack therefore, they should contact Michael Apfelbaum (representing the foundation) and he will tell you I reached out to them," he said.

A message left at Apfelbaum attorney's office late Tuesday afternoon was not returned.