When it comes to creating new positions in county government, shouldn’t the public have some knowledge of what’s going on

15 July 2023 – Government in this country runs on a “by the people, for the people” concept. In fact, in this democracy, tax payers are technically paying the salaries of employees of just about every government position from the top down.

What happens when new positions are created without the public’s knowledge and seemingly out of nowhere?

This happened recently at the Franklin County Salary Board.

For some background on the group, there are five people on the Salary Board and it’s established through county code.

Harold Wissinger, Franklin County Controller and member of the Salary Board, explained, “There are actually four permanent voting members on Salary Board, the three commissioners and the controller. Where it gets a little bit unusual, is when another elected official has an item coming before the Salary Board that pertains to their area, then they also have a vote. So at that point, we have five votes.”

For instance, if the treasurer was asking for a new position in her office, she would have a vote at that particular Salary Board only on that particular item.

Historically, the Salary Board meetings and minutes had been posted online for the public to see. That practice has stopped in the last few years.

Wissinger said, “The Commissioner’s Office made a decision to not post the minutes online. I believe you can still get those, but you have to make a specific request to get those. I do believe that the salary board meeting is streamed when it’s occurring.”

The concern may have been allowing the public and fellow employees access to salary figures.

Wissinger said, “The reason why I wanted to come in today was to explain my vote on one particular item. Also, with the decline of newspapers, we really don’t have any sort of media attending these meetings. So I kind of feel it’s important to come here and explain what’s going on.”

About a week ago, the Salary Board met with one item that seemed a bit unusual.

Wissinger continued, “That was a request to create a new position which was going to be a chief financial officer for the county. This was going to be a six figure salary. Some of my concerns on that is that this is not, in my opinion, a typical position for our size county. You might see this at somewhere in like Allegheny County or the city county of Philadelphia, but not typical fourth class counties.”

The request included promoting the current fiscal director into the chief financial officer position.

Wissinger said, “Some of my concern also with that is the timing of this. Why would this happen now? Typically items of this nature would happen in the reorganization meeting. They’re included in the annual budget that way. So I also had some concern about we’re creating a position, a very high level position in the county, and we’re not advertising. No disrespect to the person that was promoted into that, but how do we know if this is needed to improve the county? How do we know we got the right person if we have not advertised?”

The request came from the county administrator who works directly under the county commissioners.

Wissinger said, “The explanation given was that we needed to modernize and improve efficiencies. Some very fancy words that it’s a little hard to get to what is the true benefit that’s going to be created by that?”

Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM noted, “They didn’t give you any facts of exactly why this should be needed. And (they asked for it) now instead of like you said, during the organization budget, where it would be more responsible to see how that money would work out and how that would be.”

Moving the fiscal director into the CFO position, there would be a vacant fiscal director position.

Wissinger said, “So we, as part of this action, basically promoted a mid-level accounting manager to the fiscal director position. Keep in mind we also have an assistant fiscal director position, so this person was on the scale below the assistant fiscal director. This person leapfrog and moved up to the fiscal director position.”

The move didn’t really give anyone else an option to apply for the position.

Wissinger said, “I think the concern is this is not a business that someone owns and can just decide what they want to do. This is county government. I think this is, in my opinion, inappropriate to just promote people into positions without advertising. Just from a managerial standpoint, this doesn’t make sense that we don’t advertise, that we don’t make sure we have the right people in the right positions.”

One of the commissioners did ask if there would be any cost savings from the reorganization.

Wissinger said, “The response came back, there were I think four or five answers that were given and really none of them made any sense to me, but I’ll share two that particularly had a concern for me. One is that we’re not filling the accounting manager’s position. So it’s kind of, if you will, they’re calling this a savings. It’s kind of like my when my wife goes and buys a new dress and tells me she saved $20 because it was on sale. That’s what it felt like to me. The second thing that was offered was that last year, the county needed to gain some additional resources to prepare our county financials, which is under the duty of the fiscal director. So we hired an accounting firm at about $17,000 to help us with that. So that was thrown out that was a savings that we wouldn’t have to do that because of this reorganization. Now, my perspective is, we’ve not added any new staff. We’ve just kind of shuffled the deck if you will, and we’ve created this new position with what’s being presented as there’ll be additional duties with this new position. So even more duties, less people, we won’t have to have the additional accounting firm. That doesn’t quite add up for me. Plus, just personally how I look at these things, historically we’ve been able to do our financials in-house, we were not the last year. So the person in charge of that wasn’t able to get, in my opinion, part of their job done. So we turned around and promoted that person.”

The vote at the Salary Board meeting was 3 to 1. All three county commissioners voted yes. Wissinger was the one no-vote.

The position is a six-figure salary, plus the addition of another job to backfill the position that was vacated.

Wissinger said, “It’s my belief that the numbers on this just don’t add up and that eventually they will come back in and say we need to backfill that position and that’ll happen at a later date.”

The person has already started in the new position.

It still seems a bit odd that this wasn’t even advertised internally.

Attorney Clint Barkdoll pointed out, “What you’re revealing here today, and I think it is very newsworthy, to me buttresses the fact these meeting minutes ought to be online, the agendas ought to be online. Because here’s the case, the public is none the wiser to any of this. You’re now letting the public know, which I think is great, had this been posted online, this could have been the sort of issue I would imagine that the public may have been engaged contacting the commissioners, etc. But of course, none of that happened here. Now, the other piece of this though here, this was a recommendation from county administration. So isn’t this though kind of typical, and I don’t mean that in a negative way necessarily, but it strikes me that often the county governance is the commissioners are largely a reactionary board in the sense they are acting on things administration brings to them. I mean, rarely am I seeing organic initiatives coming directly from the Board of Commissioners. So in that respect, this process that you just described, this would be fairly typical in the way these matters are handled.”

Wissinger said, “I think that’s a fair statement.”

Pat Ryan of NewsTalk 103.7FM pointed out, “As easily as this has been created is as easily as it can be dissolved. We’re going to see a change in the makeup of the Franklin County Commissioners most likely in the fall here. The commissioners get their agenda moved by the administrator here. But I mean, you can easily do away with this position, can’t you?”

Barkdoll said, “I think legally they could do that. If the composition of the board changes and the votes would change, I think it would be at their discretion to eliminate any position.”

Wissinger added, “I will tell you historically, I’ve seen that once these things are kind of baked into the into the roster, it is more difficult to get them out. One of the commissioners that could change this actually voted for this. So someone’s going to have to get him to change.”

One statistic from Pennsylvania is that for every 100 positions in Pennsylvania that are vacant, there are estimated to be 75 workers to fill them.

Wissinger said, “So there’s a deficit of 25. So I do appreciate that this is, as far as employment goes, this is a unique time that we’re living in. But I also do not think that the county can afford to get into a situation of chasing salaries.”

With those statistics, this action could have been something that was an effort to keep good people.

As the one dissenting vote, Wissinger said, “I did speak up. I had about 10 different points that I made in regards to this. One of one of the commissioners took the position to somewhat attack me. The comment I think was every board needs a contrarian. That’s our that’s our one Democrat. That’s going to be Bob Ziobrowski. If that’s the case, then I’m going to wear that badge proudly. At the end of the day, and to answer why I’m here, I want to make sure that the public knows. I don’t think from my perspective that I’ve run to you every time there’s been a vote that I disagree with. This is the first time I’ve actually asked to come talk to you. The reason is, I feel this is above and beyond. It’s kind of egregious, I feel.”

Jansen said, “You’re questioning this is appropriate and should be welcomed. We need more dialogue, more debate, more transparency. The commissioners have got to start having more arguments in front of the public eye. Thank you. Thank you so much for saying, wait a minute. We need to talk about this. This shouldn’t be happening this way.”

Barkdoll added, “This is a major position that’s going to cost the county government a lot of money going forward. How many other fourth class counties in Pennsylvania have a CFO position?”

Wissinger said, “I asked that. That was one of the questions that I asked in the meeting and the answer was a little jumbled. The answer was something I’m going to paraphrase that we feel this is appropriate, but only indicated that Allegheny and counties of that size would have that and they are not the same class that we are. So to answer your question, when I asked that same question, there were no fourth class counties that were offered. To me, I would think that’s the very starting point for when you’re creating a new position. What do similar counties of our class have on their roster?”

Ryan asked, “And what are we setting up for other counties moving forward? Now we’re going to be the poster child for other counties? Adding more CFOs?”

Barkdoll said, “If we’re the only fourth class county in the Commonwealth to do this, that’s a little bit of a red flag to me. Who will this person be reporting to? Directly to county administration or the commissioners?”

Wissinger said, “I believe this is supposed to report directly to county administration. I would suggest also that what the CFO is doing, managing the overall wellness of the financial position for the county, does kind of fall under the controller. So instead of adding a position, I would argue that we already had assets in place to bring them together. We could have formed a committee, would be with the controller, the fiscal director could have been county administration coming together to basically accomplish what I think the CFO position is going to be supposedly working on.”

Barkdoll said, “I’ve been openly critical over the years that on the commissioner’s board, everything is unanimous. You would be very hard pressed to find any vote that’s not three to nothing. One the Salary Board, and you’re talking this was a 3-1 vote, are you typically seeing dissenting votes like this on the board, where you’ve got non-unanimous votes on various issues dealing with pay raises or new positions?”

Wissinger said, “No we’re not seeing that. We’re seeing unanimous votes from the Board of Commissioners.”

Hear the full interview by clicking here:  https://newstalk1037fm.com/interviews/