10/09/12 — County talks payroll, politics

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County talks payroll, politics

By Steve Herring
Published in News on October 9, 2012 1:46 PM

Wayne County commissioners and county staff Monday afternoon agreed that the county's new payroll system isn't working as it should; that the problems need to be corrected sooner rather than later; and that no employee should suffer because of the mistakes.

They also wanted, and were given, assurance that underpaid employees have received their correct salaries.

But that is where harmony ended.

Politics colored the two-hour special session called by commissioners to talk about the issue that has lingered for nearly three months. And for the second time, a commissioner said the controversy is being fueled by people other than county employees.

Commissioners called for the workshop following last Tuesday's regular meeting, which, for the second time in as many months, was packed by emergency medical services employees.

The employees complained that the system overpaid some and underpaid others over the past three months. It has, they told commissioners, reached a critical stage, endangering services and the public.

The problem, County Manager Lee Smith said, is not widespread. It has hit the Office of Emergency Services because of a complicated and confusing formula used to calculate overtime.

Smith said his recommendation was to delay any action on how to correct the overpayments, be it forgiving them, or requiring that they be repaid.

He said that the pressing problem is to correct the payroll system first, and then the overpayments. He also recommended that the county abandon use of the confusing fluctuating workweek used by EMS to calculate overtime and switch to straight overtime instead.

However, until that happens, payroll will be manually entered instead of automatically over the next two months to help the county's Office of Emergency Services catch up, he said.

It will be up to commissioners to decide how the overpayments will be handled.

Commissioner Jack Best said he has run a big business and is familiar with problems that changing a payroll system can create. Some were resolved quickly, others took 30 to 60 days, he said.

"There is no question that we need to be transparent about it," Best said. "This meeting has been transparent and fixing this payroll system has been the staff's No. 1 priority. They have worked a lot of extra hours. For us to sit up here and criticize our staff for not trying is kind of hard to do.

"This meeting really hasn't been about payroll. I have sat here and listened to all of these questions. This thing is just trying to make our staff look bad."

Best said he could understand EMS workers have "real, legitimate" problems.

"But just looking down here at the end trying to make our staff look bad, I think that is the reason that we are here," Best said. "I don't think that is the reason we are here. I think we are here to get it fixed rather than jump on specific people.

"It has been said out in the community by certain people that the first thing they want to do if the board changes is to get rid of Mr. Smith. If that is the case, I think that would be a very big mistake."

All people have to do to see that getting rid of Smith was a bad idea was to look at the county's financial condition that is "unparalleled" when compared to anyone else, Best said. The county is in the shape to do whatever it wants to do.

"I am not here for a popularity contest," Commissioner Ray Mayo said. "I am here for a reason -- to serve the citizens and employees of Wayne County. The talking points that have been mentioned up here on this board are not true as far as I am concerned. I don't know where this is coming from that somebody is trying to get something against somebody else. I am not here for a popularity contest."

Smith was asked about what was being done to resolve the issues with the fluctuating workweek. Human resources director Sue Guy said there was no need to devote more time to the fluctuating workweek overtime formula if the county plans to switch over to the simpler straight overtime.

In past meetings, Smith has said that one of the problems had been EMS supervisors incorrectly inputting the payroll information.

That is not the case, said Sandra Blizzard, OES office manager. The problems have originated with Ceridian, the company from which the county purchased the new system.

She went as far as calling one of the company's presentations a "dog and pony show." Also, any delays in getting corrected payroll information to human resources were the result of OES not getting timely information itself, she said

Commissioner Steve Keen spent almost half an hour questioning Smith and Ms. Guy on issues ranging from compensatory time and as to why the county should wait until the end of the year to correct the overpayments.

Keen asked Smith that if the money was forgiven how would the county arrange for the remainder of county employees to receive a "bonus."

That is why it is off the table until January to look at it, Smith said. That also will give his office time to ensure it has a specific amount to present to the board, Smith said.

It will be a board decision as to what to do, he said.

Chairman John Bell attempted to comment, but Keen told him he was not through. When Bell continued, Keen appealed to County Attorney Borden Parker who deferred to Bell.

"Let me tell you something Mr. Keen, if you are asking Mr. Smith about policy that is our job," Bell said.

Keen said he understood that.

"So he explained it pretty simple that in January he will come to us and talk about what we can do about this overtime," Bell said. "So what we need to do is get on with why we are here and it is about payroll."

Best made a motion to adjourn, but Keen and Mayo pressed to make comments.

Bell reminded commissioners there was a motion on the floor, but Keen said he would like to conclude with his comments.

It has been mentioned the issue was not about payroll, Keen said.

"That is your opinion," Keen said.

"It was a statement," Best said.