SUNBURY - Northumberland County Commissioner Rick Shoch has a plan to fill the vacant chief clerk's position that he said could save $105,000 annually.

Commissioners Stephen Bridy and Vinny Clausi don't see it that way. They dispute his figures, and Clausi questions his motivation.

Jerome Alex, the county's administrating officer of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Services (BHIS), should be appointed chief clerk, Shoch said, instead of spliting the duties among two current employees as proposed by Clausi, board chairman.

Appointing Alex as chief clerk would save $75,000, Shoch said. A second personnel move - reverting the assistant solicitor position to part time - would save an additional $30,000. Both moves would leave enough money to fund a new assistant district attorney position and still retain an estimated $40,000 savings each year.

Shoch said his plan "dwarfs the savings that Mr. Clausi alleges would result from his proposal."

The reinstatement of a fifth assistant district attorney position was approved on a split vote by the salary board in May. Added mid-year, the position wasn't included in the 2014 budget, which Clausi and Bridy cited in their opposition to the move. District Attorney Tony Rosini pushed for the addition, saying his staff has struggled to handle its case load.

Plan opposed

Shoch's proposal was shared by email with Bridy and Clausi one day before today's meeting of the county salary board to vote on a different plan to replace former chief clerk Gary Steffen, who retired June 6.

Clausi slammed Shoch for the timing of the email. He questioned Shoch's figures and said the plan had no merit. Since Alex's department is largely funded with state and federal resources, Bridy said Shoch's estimates of savings to county taxpayers doesn't add up.

However, the savings would be able to be applied to other programs to benefit BHIDS clients throughout the county, Shoch said in an email Monday night.

Alex had once been the county's public safety director. He was appointed to the position in February 2012 and resigned in September that year, citing health concerns related to the job.

Clausi said the clerk's position oversees 60 departments, not just one. Both he and Bridy said if Alex couldn't handle a single department, they doubt he could manage all of county government.

"I think Jerome's a decent fellow. However, he had to resign from public safety because it was too taxing," Bridy said. "I don't understand how he could take on the role of chief clerk where every problem of the county rests on your shoulders."

Sharing duties

Clausi said he'd like to hire someone to replace Steffen. Problem is, he said, no one wants the job. Six different candidates turned him down. Some were retired and didn't want to return to a county job, while others expressed concern about job security with the 2015 elections looming.

In turn, Clausi recommends the chief clerk's duties be split between administrative assistant Janet Povish and assistant solicitor John Muncer, both of whom are already full time. That would result in a raise for each - $15,000 for Povish and $20,000 for Muncer - but an overall savings of $40,000 for the county, Clausi said. Steffen was earning $51,002 plus benefits valued at more than $24,000.

Povish and Muncer have already begun taking on the chief clerk role. Their hours were raised from 33 to 43, Bridy said, and over the past two weeks, they've proven they can handle the work.

Povish currently earns an annual salary of $35,833, while Muncer's salary is $65,180. As head of BHIS, Alex earns $51,692, comparable to Steffen's.

Avoid politics

Hiring Alex would avoid the concerns shared by other candidates who opted against taking the job, Shoch said.

Shoch said the proposal to appoint Alex "de-politicizes" the situation because he is a civil service employee and could return to BHIS within one year. The makeup of the board of commissioners could change in the 2015 election. This would allow Alex to retain a job in the event the next board would hire its own candidate for chief clerk. It would also allow Alex to act outside the influence of the county commissioners and department heads, Shoch said.

"This status would remove one of the stumbling blocks that Mr. Clausi has experienced in trying to persuade others to take the position," Shoch writes in his proposal. "I believe he will serve the citizens of the county rather than any particular commissioner, which is what we all should want from a chief clerk."

Another cut?

Under Shoch's proposal, Alex's duties at BHIS would be divided among other department employees at no additional cost. The same measure was taken when Alex was chosen to become the county's public safety director.

In response, Clausi said Shoch's plan makes clear that Alex's position isn't needed. Bridy agrees since those duties can be split among other employees, Clausi said he'll look into eliminating Alex's job at BHIS.

"If they don't need him, get rid of the position," Clausi said.

Labor law

Shoch voted in December 2012 against changing the assistant solicitor position from part time to full time. He said the move has failed to meet the rationale put forth by the board majority when the switch was made. Muncer was to handle labor law matters, but he said outside counsel continues to handle labor-related negotiations and litigation. Also, Muncer recently resigned from representing the county prison board, further reducing his duties.

"As we all know, that scenario has not materialized, nor should it since Mr. Muncer is not practiced in the area of labor law. The fact of the matter is that we have not only continued to use outside labor counsel to handle labor-related negotiations and litigation, we recently acknowledged need for such expertise by approving an increase in that counsel's hourly rate," Shoch states in his proposal.

"The savings related to returning the assistant solicitor position to its former part time status would accrue directly to the general fund and could be used to significantly offset the costs associated with funding the assistant district attorney position," he said Monday.

Clausi said the outside labor attorney, qualified to handle issues with labor unions, is a necessity and has saved the county "millions" the past 2 1/2 years.

"That's the way it's going to be," Clausi said of having a full-time assistant solicitor.