By Adam Pagnucco.
Once again, the county council has expressed its displeasure at the administration of County Executive Marc Elrich. And once again, executive branch officials were invited to a Zoom thrashing that was less pleasant than most root canals. Chief Administrative Officer Rich Madaleno plays more defense now than beloved former Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby.
Right or wrong, this is turning into a regular thing.
The current object of the council’s ire is the executive branch’s administration of the county’s COVID emergency pay program. The program was first established way back in April by the executive and has continued without interference from the council since then. It is based on the erroneous notion that it was mandated in the county’s union contracts when in fact those contracts referred to emergency pay in the context of weather events. The program is bleeding the county budget by $4 million a pay period, or $100 million a calendar year, and was discovered by the inspector general to be plagued with mismanagement and inflated costs in at least one department. Unlike COVID pay programs in other jurisdictions, MoCo’s has no defined end date.
One of the more troublesome revelations from the inspector general’s report was that managers at the Department of Permitting Services deliberately violated county policy in handing out undeserved COVID pay to employees. Madaleno’s first response in the Washington Post was to characterize it as an “unfortunate mistake.” He walked that back in discussion with the council, but then his deputy chief administrative officer and the current permitting services director both told the council that it was a mistake. It was not. The inspector general said that the managers who awarded the extra pay “decided to allow inspectors to claim front facing differential for their entire workday rather than ‘nickel and dime’ them by asking that they account for individual hours.” This was not a mistake. It was insubordination.
Council Member Andrew Friedson lays out remedies for the conduct found in the inspector general’s report.
Several council members called for an independent investigation, but if the administration continues to believe that this was a mistake rather than insubordination, whether accountability occurs is an open question. Other managers are watching. So are employees who may be thinking of calling the inspector general because of issues going on in their departments. If no one is held to account, why bother?
By the way, while we are on the topic of scandals, was anyone ever disciplined for the $908,000 in overtime paid by the fire department that a whistleblower said was a “scam?”
There is more. The COVID pay program has expended tens of millions of dollars with no end in sight. The council has allowed this to fester for months while it has drained the county’s beleaguered budget. The executive branch has claimed that FEMA will reimburse it for most of this money, but the inspector general has questioned that and so has the county’s own emergency management director.
In the meantime, the county has huge needs for which this money won’t be available. For example, MCPS plans to resume some in-person instruction in January. With the county’s share of federal grant money either gone or spoken for, how will the county help MCPS pay for building improvements, personal protective equipment and any emergency pay for their employees? (The largest COVID contact tracing study to date has found that children are key spreaders of the coronavirus.) MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith has said the district “absolutely will have to hire more people” if it reopens. The county executive is asking for $3 million for HVAC improvements in seven schools but MCPS has more than 200 schools. That’s not going to be enough.
County spending is within the purview of the county council. If the council is dissatisfied with the executive branch’s management of it, the council must step in. The council may not be able to do much about money that has already been spent, but it can pass legislation governing it in the future. Such legislation should define emergency pay, specify who gets it and who does not, set its levels, specify the conditions under which it is paid, establish an approval process, establish a fixed duration with a possible extension process and mandate regular reporting. If county managers refuse to obey their chief administrative officer, let’s see if they will refuse to obey county law. More than that, let’s see if county leaders can reestablish respect for taxpayer funds rather than allowing them to be treated as “other people’s money.”
Complain all you want about this, council members. But in the end, if you think it’s a problem, you must fix it. Or own it.