Consultant hired to review county Aging programs
Rosie Steffens has tendered her resignation effective Oct. 12, but did not return to work following a forced leave of absence with pay put in place by county administrator Chet Janik. She will use up personal and vacation days built up during her 26 years working for Leelanau County to fill in the time span between her letter dated Aug. 6 and offi cial retirement.
“Working with and for the senior population in our county has been the most rewarding job anyone could have,” Steffens wrote. “The seniors have given me far more than I could ever imagine giving them.”
County administrator Chet Janik, who is taking over Steffens administrative duties for the short-term, said that Steffens’ actions have been handed over to the county Prosecutor’s office as part of his investigation into Steffens’ actions. Janik said an accounting firm has been hired to determine the financial fallout from the discovery, and the Internal Revenue Service has been contacted to determine tax ramifications to the county and employees who were overpaid for mileage.
“In theory, every penny that they have received in (unjustified) mileage reimbursement for the past five or six years is taxable,” Janik told county commissioners. He presented findings of an investigation he led into CoA fi- nances Tuesday at the executive committee of the County Board of Commissioners.
No evidence surfaced to indicate that Steffens benefited personally from her actions.
Janik explained that part-time homemakers hired by the county to work in senior homes were told by Steffens to submit mileage distances to and from their homes to work sites. They were also told to tabulate mileage to multiple work sites as though each trip was made from their home even if the sites themselves were close to each other.
The result was to at least double mileage reimbursement. Janik and an employee of the county clerk’s office pored over worksheets submitted for the first half of 2012, determining that the county has been overpaying mileage by between $12,000 and $14,000 annually. The cost to county coffers could reach $60,000.
Janik said the worksheets were not presented to the county Clerk’s office, making it impossible to detect the overpayments by the documentation available. The discrepancy was found when a CoA employee who usually handled payroll went on vacation. Her replacement alerted Janik, who said his investigation into CoA activities continues.
In a reply confirming Steffens’ resignation,
Janik wrote that due to “the serious nature of the mileage reimbursement issue, this letter will also serve as an offi cial reprimand with five days of unpaid leave as a consequence of your decision to allow homemakers additional compensation. I personally regret having to take this action but the evidence in quite clear in this (matter).”
Janik does not anticipate any discipline action against the homemakers. “The question the homemakers are asking is if they are liable ... no they are not, because every one of them was doing this on the advice of their employer,” Janik said.
Commissioner Melinda Lautner suggested that the county should seek reimbursement.
“I’m looking at this not that somebody was overpaid, but we have thousands of dollars of taxpayer money that should be coming back, and it needs to be replaced,” she said.
But commissioner Richard Schmuckal sought a softer approach, saying that “we error on the side of the providers. This could create a lot of hardship; they don’t make a lot of money.”
Steffens two weeks ago told a threemember committee of the County Board that she authorized the overpayments as a way to better compensate homemakers after a former county administrator refused to consider giving them a raise. However, Janik learned that homemakers have received a pay raise in all but one year since 2006. Their hourly rate increased from $9.97 in 2006 to $11.21 in 2011. They are reimbursed for mileage at the maximum level determined by the federal government, meaning that the per-mile rate has increased from 44.5 cents to 55.5 cents.
Janik moved quickly in creating a process to reorganize the CoA in advance of hiring a new director. Janik on Tuesday introduced Gregory Piaskowski, former head of the Area Agency on Aging, who Janik had hired to study the programs and procedures now in place in the CoA. He will be paid $40 per hour in a consulting role, plus $300 for the finished report. Piaskowski, who now resides in Traverse City, is a former county resident.
Schmuckal said some seniors have resented the County Board’s intrusion into CoA affairs. One vowed to “get your job,” said Schmuckal, referring to having Janik fired.
Replied Janik: “As a County Board, we need to be open on everything. These are our tax dollars. This is not a personal attack on Rosie. I’ve known her for 30 years.”
Commissioner Jean Watkoski, who sits on the CoA advisory board, said her questions through the years about CoA funding were never fully answered. “This has been a long time coming, and I’m very relieved that (Piaskowski) is going to be here to help review the entire program,” said Watkoski. “I think the voters of the county are going to be relieved that this entire program will be reviewed at this time.”
Phone calls made to Steffens at home seeking comment for this story were not returned.