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Payroll issues playing big role in JeffCo elections budget dispute

By Staff | Mar 9, 2010

Jefferson County Clerk Jennifer Maghan

CHARLES TOWN – As members of the Jefferson County Commission prepare to determine how they will allocate funding for the upcoming fiscal year, the battle lines remain drawn over some of the allocations they made for the current one.

On one side stands several members of the commission. On the other side stands Jefferson County Clerk Jennifer Maghan, who says her office is currently underfunded in terms of both salaries and its elections account.

At the start of the current fiscal year, members of the commission slashed nearly $48,000 from Maghan’s salary line item. The cut, she said, came in addition to others that had been made previously and would have required her to eliminate roughly two employees from her office.

She filed suit against the commission in August in an attempt to have the money returned and potential layoffs avoided.

No decision has yet been made in the case, and Maghan has yet to terminate any employees. By Feb. 1, with seven full months in the fiscal year completed, Maghan said she had expended 74 percent of the funds the commission had allocated to her for salaries in the fiscal year.

“I don’t look at it as being over (budget),” she said of the figure. “I look at it as the County Commission deliberately reduced our numbers.”

Members of the commission, however, say that the figures concern them.

“My concerns are due to the fact that I don’t know how she is going to finish out this budget year and stay within the guidelines laid out by the County Commission as it relates to her budget,” said County Commissioner Patsy Noland.

Noland said the commission is tasked with determining how much money should be provided each year to both its own departments and those that are overseen by other elected officials. Everyone, including the commission, is required to stay within the parameters that are set out for them at the start of the year, she said.

“We’re the ones who have to be accountable for that. There would be no budget if every elected official did what the county clerk is doing,” Noland said, adding that, “We give them what we can afford to give them in their budget.”

Maghan’s suit, however, says the cuts that were made to her office were arbitrary and capricious and a “thinly veiled attempt to control Madame Clerk’s Office … to the detriment of her employees and citizenry of Jefferson County.”

The suit claims that the commission violated Section 7-7-7 of the West Virginia Code, which states that elected officials, including the county clerk, have the ability to fix the compensation of their assistants, deputies and employees based on the total amount of money designated for expenditures by their respective offices by the County Commission.

Section 7-7-7 further states that the amount of money each elected official spends on their employees’ compensation shall not exceed the total expenditure designated by the County Commission for each office.

That language raises questions for Jefferson County Commissioner Dale Manuel.

“The real question is: Does the County Commission have the ability to set a budget, an overall budget, and does the elected (official) have to stick with the budget?” he said.

If other elected officials don’t have to stay within the commission’s allocation, Manuel said, it’s going to create problems for budgeting.

Manuel said he would have supported Maghan if she had come before the commission and asked to reallocate funding that was available elsewhere in her budget to help cover the salary shortfall. That didn’t happen, though, he said.

Maghan, meanwhile, says she was unfairly targeted in the cuts. She said her office has added no new employees and had no increases in salaries, unlike some others that she noted were provided with earlier salary adjustments. Those adjustments were said by commissioners to be an attempt at addressing salary inequity that existed among the county’s work force.

Maghan said she sees the pay bumps differently.

“I don’t think it was equitable,” she said.

Filling in the gaps

As the situation now stands, Noland said the commission has been left wondering how it is going to “plug the hole in the budget” that has resulted from the difference in the amount Maghan has spent and the amount she was allocated.

Salaries in the clerk’s general account aren’t the only hole the commission may have to find a way to fill. Maghan also has told commissioners she will need additional funds for May’s Primary Election, which she projects will cost nearly $170,000 in all. She told commissioners earlier that she would need an additional $111,000 for the account to pay for election workers and supplies.

That figure, she said, includes the printing of separate ballots for Democrats, Republicans and voters who are not affiliated with a party. Supplies can run close to $78,000, she said.

The price tag for supplies comes in addition to the expenses associated with the total of four poll workers, plus one supply clerk, all of whom are required to be on hand at each of the county’s 32 precincts. That comes at a cost totaling $49,600.

Another 20 to 24 individuals are on-site at the county’s courthouse on election night, overseeing everything from posting results to managing traffic flow as election results are brought in. Each individual is paid more than $10 an hour for the roughly four hours of duty.

Rent also needs to be paid on the venues where voters cast their ballots, each location coming in at $100 to $200 per venue.

Maghan said the rates are set by the various sites and not the county.

“It is very costly,” she said of the election process.

The upcoming election will be the third that the county has held this fiscal year. Two special elections took place in late 2009.

The state of Maghan’s elections account after those two elections raised eyebrows for some members of the commission. The group had earmarked $153,343 for elections. By February, documents show that $185,080.78 had been spent, though the county has since been reimbursed nearly $69,000 for the cost of a referendum on whether table games should be permitted at Charles Town Races & Slots.

During recent meetings of the Jefferson County Commission, Noland questioned Maghan on some of the expenditures from the account, including how a $54,000 line item for salary and wages was being spent. Noland said she had been unaware when the budget was approved that a full-time employee was being paid out of the elections account.

Maghan said in an interview Wednesday that the line item is being used to pay a member of her staff who works solely on election-related issues. She said the staff member started being paid out of the elections account on July 1, the start of the current fiscal year.

“It just made more sense,” Maghan said of the decision to pay the employee out of her elections account.

Maghan said that over the years, there have been different scenarios in regard to whether poll workers were paid out of the salary and wages’ line item or out of another line item referenced as part-time extra help.

Commissioners had budgeted the part-time extra help at $14,000 for the current fiscal year. As of Feb. 1, $101,257 had been expended from the line. The funds were used on poll workers and other helpers associated with the elections.

Maghan said she used the part-time extra help line item for poll workers because it was more in keeping with IRS regulations. She moved her employee into the salary line item because it was the area in which the employee works, Maghan said.

“She was moved over predominately because that’s where she should be,” Maghan said Wednesday.

The practice is not out of line with what is done in other counties. Marsha Kelley of the Berkeley County finance office said that five full-time and two part-time workers are paid regularly from the elections account in her county.

Kelley said that in calendar year 2008, Berkeley County’s elections account was funded at $576,998. Of that, $320,332.31 went to salaries for regular full- and part-time workers, she said. Left in the account was $256,666 – to cover both the primary and general elections that occurred that year.