Controller, commissioners agree all raises should require salary board meeting
SUNBURY - A policy in place for more than 30 years in Northumberland County allows salary increases to be granted without the need for a salary board vote if at least two commissioners are willing to approve them.
County Controller Tony Phillips explained Monday a department head can request a raise for an employee that's less than a normal "step" increase, and two commissioners and the department head can approve it without scheduling a meeting.
It's a past practice, however, that he and all three commissioners say is wrong.
"I don't like this procedure," Phillips said. "The bottom line is we need to meet as a salary board and firm this stuff up."
"I think we should put in a new policy," said Commissioner Stephen Bridy. He said he understands the practice was put in place to avoid "political" motives in raises.
The practice was revealed by Phillips in an interview with The News-Item that was set up to explain why Cortney Marise, of Sunbury, was given a raise in July without salary board approval, a move Commissioner Rick Shoch calls illegal.
Despite Commissioner Vinny Clausi's reservations about the policy, he signed the document to give the raise to Marise, the assistant registrar in the Board of Elections office since May 2010. He said she's a single mother trying to survive on just $15,000 in take-home pay.
"That's a disgrace. It was the right thing to do, and I'll take that to the grave," he said.
Clausi and Phillip said language in the Classification and Compensation Plan adopted in 1982 and slightly revised in 2007 doesn't specify the need for a meeting and a vote.
The policy does not make a distinction between the increases that can be approved without a salary board meeting and those that qualify as step increases.
"Step increases within a salary range should not be automatic, but should be made on the basis of quality and fitness in the performance of duties," the policy reads. It also says, "Before any increase is considered, the requesting authority shall provide the salary board with a performance evaluation report justifying such recommended increase."
Shoch agrees the policy is flawed, but he does not interpret it to mean a meeting and a vote can be avoided.
"If that's how we're going to interpret that, I don't agree. It should be done out in the public to justify it," he said Monday.
Marise started April 26, 2010, at a salary of $19,900, and is currently paid $23,191.
The policy aside, Clausi said Friday her current salary could be explained by a Feb. 23, 2010, salary board decision in which all non-union full-time employees were approved to receive at least a 3 percent salary increase. Employees who earned less than $25,000 were set to receive $2,000 up to $25,500, or a 3 percent increase, whichever was greater.
Shoch said the salary adjustments approved by the salary board do not adequately explain the increase, since the February 2010 decision would not have applied to future employees.
"However, even if we were to assume it was, this latest pay increase, when combined with prior increases to Ms. Marise, is well in excess of the maximum $2,000 increase that would have applied to employees in her salary range. It would be interesting to see if her prior increase was also given illegally," Shoch said.
Also, if there was a policy to provide increases to employees without voting, Shoch questioned the need for such a meeting in the first place.
However, Clausi and Phillips clarified Monday that Marise's increases can be attributed to votes taken during salary board meetings in 2011, 2012 and 2013 in which further increases of 3, 2.5 and 2.5 percent, respectively, were approved for non-union employees. Marise was an employee during those years.
As for the July salary boost, Alisha Herb, chief registrar of the Northumberland County Board of Elections, first requested an increase for Marise's salary of $21,535 in a letter dated Oct. 5, 2012. She told the commissioners and Phillips that Marise was being paid less than a newer employee, and she deserved a raise based on performance.
Herb signed the document in the space designated for the person who submits the form. It is also signed by Clausi, Bridy and Chief Clerk Gary Steffen. There are also spaces for Shoch, Phillips and budget director Jeff McClintock to sign, but those spaces are blank.
The document was dated July 18 and the effective date is July 29.
The raise was not approved at a July 10 salary board meeting, nor at any other salary board meeting in 2013, Shoch said. And, he said, the document never reached his desk.
That's why he believes the pay increase for Marise, niece of commissioner secretary Janet Povish, is illegal.
Shoch said he doesn't condemn Marise or Herb for the increases, but said Clausi, Bridy and Steffen "surely understood that this increase had to be voted on publicly at a salary board meeting, but chose to hide it from me, and from the public.
"These latest abuses are just the ones that have come upon to date," he added. "I am sure that a thorough investigation by an independent agency would show that these are just the tip of the iceberg."
Clausi on Monday called Shoch a "hypocrite" because he signed a document to increase the salary of Geraldine A. Snyder, of Northumberland, the payroll manager and human relations assistant in human resources director Joe Picarelli's office, to $34,882.
The document, dated Nov. 16 and effective Nov. 19, was submitted by Picarelli and signed by Shoch, Clausi, Bridy, Steffen, McClintock and Picarelli. Phillips did not sign the document.
It is the same procedure for which Clausi and Bridy are being criticized, Clausi said.
Shoch didn't sign Marise's sheet because he didn't want to, said Clausi, but "he did sign the other employee's hire sheet for the same thing without a salary board."
"He's picking and choosing," Bridy said.
Shoch said the Snyder document was presented to him as a promotion, which doesn't require a vote during a salary board meeting, and so he signed it.
In the case of Marise, he said he never saw the document.
Clausi and Bridy also criticized Shoch for voting to increase a cost of living allocation earlier this year for retired county employees when Shoch's mother benefited from it.
Shoch said he was legally allowed to vote for the increase since it equally affected a group of retirees.