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Clerk contract leads to debate over benefits



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March 16, 2011 - It was supposed to be a discussion and vote last week on a four-page contract for Oxford Village's new clerk, but instead, it turned into a debate over the level of benefits public sector employees receive versus their private sector counterparts.

At issue were benefits such as payment for unused sick leave, payment in lieu of compensatory time or overtime, and a severance package that included up to three months worth of pay.

"I still don't think that it's right to be doing this," said Councilman Tony Albensi. "The private sector has not been doing this for a number of years and I'll say it over and over and over again – the public sector needs to catch up to that."

Despite the lengthy debate, the contract to employ Susan Nassar (see story below) as clerk was finally approved 4-0 with Councilwoman Maureen Helmuth abstaining.

Nassar will be paid a starting salary of $45,000 per year, plus benefits, which will cost the village an additional $17,621 annually. Her first official day will be March 21.

Some officials took issue with the severance provision in Nassar's contract. Should she be terminated "without cause," Nassar will be paid one month's salary for each year she's been employed with the village, up to a maximum of three months.

"Nothing against you or anybody else, but I don't think anybody is afforded severance pay, or should be, whether they do a good job or a bad job, or whether they're terminated or whether they decide to go somewhere else," said Councilman Tom Benner. "You're getting paid good money (and) good benefits while you're here. As long as you're doing a good job, unless you decide you want to leave, in my opinion, there's no need to have this clause in there."

Albensi also was opposed to the idea of being "locked in" to paying someone who's no longer working for the village three months worth of wages.

Both Nassar and village Manager Joe Young explained that the severance provision is in the contract to offer her some protection given the clerk job is a "political position" in so much as the hiring and firing can only be done by council.

If three new members of council (a majority) get elected and they decide to fire the clerk at their first meeting, there's nothing to stop them from doing so.

Nassar told council this scenario happens "quite often."

"All of a sudden, at the next meeting, the appointed people are out," she said.

Albensi indicated he understood Nassar's concern. "It is a political position. There's no doubt about it," he said. "There's no 'R' and there's no 'D' or an 'I' next to her name, but I can appreciate and respect (Nassar's concern)."

Albensi noted a few years ago a new council was elected in the Village of Lake Orion and it fired the village manager at its very first meeting.

"It obviously was an agenda by those council members to go in there and remove the manager," he said.

Benner noted that if the clerk is doing a good job, politics and who's sitting on council shouldn't matter.

"If you're confident in your ability to do your job, I don't see where an election or a change of the manager or anything else should affect your position," he said.

Albensi was also not pleased about the sick leave and compensatory time provisions in Nassar's contract.

According to the contract, Nassar will be compensated for unused sick leave in excess of 192 hours at her hourly rate, which right now, is $21.63.

Although Nassar's position as clerk is exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act, thus she is not entitled to accrue or be paid for compensatory time or overtime, she will be paid in lieu of them 2 percent of her base salary every August, beginning this year. Right now, this payment would equal $900.

"To me, a salary is a salary and if you're an exempt employee, as she would be under the Fair Labor (Standards) Act, then I don't see why we should pay a 2 percent compensatory time," Albensi said.

Young noted that sick leave and compensatory time provisions are included in the village's existing personnel policy, adopted by council, and apply to all non-union employees.

"This is being consistent with what we've done in the past with previous clerks and (is) also consistent with our existing personnel policy and procedures," the manager said. "It's there because it was there before."

Albensi noted he was the lone no-vote against that personnel policy and the village should be "seriously considering" not providing these types of benefits anymore.

"It may (not be) a popular thing to say to public sector employees, but my responsibility isn't to them," he said.

Village President Teri Stiles noted Albensi's points should be brought up during the council's budget discussions, which have already begun for the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Former village Clerk Dan Luick made it known that he was upset that the new clerk would be earning $2,357 more per year than he was at the time of his Oct. 12, 2010 termination by council.

"Last year, there were employees that took cuts, took pay freezes. There were employees that agreed to take pay freezes this year," Luick said. "I think it's somewhat of a slap in the face to those people to bring in somebody new and give them an additional $2,360 without first recognizing the employees who have been here and taken cuts."

"I don't think it's fair to them. I don't think it's fair at all," Luick continued. "I think the ones that have put in their time should be the first ones – if there's extra money in the general fund or in any fund – (to receive more pay)."

Despite the fact that Nassar is being paid a higher salary, it was noted that she's actually costing the village $761 less each year in terms of wages and benefits combined because she opted not to receive health insurance through the municipality.

In exchange for this, Nassar's being paid 80 percent of what it would cost the village to insure a single person.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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