Auditor: City Should Repay $18K In Aid
WILKES-BARRE — The state auditor general wants the city to return $18,738 in state aid that was paid toward council members’ pensions.
According to an audit of the city’s aggregated pension trust fund for 2016 and 2017, the city certified that four council members and their combined payroll of $62,257 were eligible for state pension aid.
However, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale found that his department couldn’t determine if the council members are full-time employees — a requirement for receiving state pension aid.
Read the audit findings
Read the city’s response
Although state pension law doesn’t define what constitutes full time, the AG’s office has established a policy that a full-time employee averages at least 35 hours of work per week and receives fringe benefits that other employees classified as full-time would receive.
The city, however, could not provide documentation such as timesheets to prove the council members worked at least 35 hours a week.
The audit made clear that council members were not prohibited from participating in the pension plan, only that state aid would not be provided toward their pensions without proper documentation. So, council members’ pensions would have to be paid solely with their contributions and local taxes.
Bob Kadluboski, a frequent critic of the current and past administrations, has complained for years that time on council should not count toward elected officials’ pensions because they don’t work full-time hours.
“I’m glad they’re looking at it,” Kadluboski said.
City Finance Director Brett Kittrick responded to the AG’s Office in a letter, noting that it has long been the position of the city that “elected officials are not only full-time employees, but round-the-clock employees.”
“Due to the unique nature of their positions, and the demands that coincide, the City has viewed the submission of timesheets by these employees to be both impractical and unnecessary,” Kittrick wrote.
He added that aid for other elected positions has been certified by the AG’s Office for many years without having to submit timesheets.
City Controller Darren Snyder on Tuesday noted that this was the first time that the city requested state aid for council members,
“I credit the city for trying to get as much money from the state as possible,” Snyder said.
Snyder concurred with Kittrick that the AG’s Office “doesn’t have any problem reimbursing for mayors or controllers across the state” without documentation that they work 35 or more hours per week.
But, Snyder asked, since the amount the city must return is less than $20,000, “is it worth the taxpayer money to file a lawsuit” in an attempt to keep the state aid?
Kittrick said that although he and Mayor Tony George’s administration “may not agree with the finding, the City will fully comply with it.”
The only council member who doesn’t participate in the non-uniformed pension plan is retired police chief Bill Barrett. He said he chose not to participate when he became a council member in 2004 because he was already entitled to a pension for his 28 years on the police force.
The audit also listed four other findings in which the city was paying excessive pensions to some retirees despite a 2001 court decision that home rule municipalities may not provide pension benefits that don’t comply with Third Class City Code.
The AG’s Office recognized that city officials couldn’t unilaterally amend pension policies to comply with the code because pension benefits are subject to collective bargaining.
Kittrick said that in most cases, through collective bargaining, the city has been able “to address the issues going forward, just not retroactively.”
“In other words, we have made progress in changing contract language to ensure compliance with the Third Class City Code for employees hired after certain dates. However, the findings will continue to appear in the audits until there are no longer any employees receiving benefits deemed excessive, even though the corrective action may have already been taken,” he said.
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