Lawmakers in a Michigan county are vowing to return $65,000 in bonuses they gave themselves using federal coronavirus relief funds.
During a July 15 public meeting, the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners voted to approve “hazard pay” for elected officials and county employees who worked through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But after public criticism and a determination from the county’s top prosecutor that the payments to elected officials were illegal, the board later backtracked on part of the plan.
A press release from the board posted on a local Facebook page said “confusion about the nature of these funds has run rampant” and that commissioners would give their bonuses back.
“The Commissioners deeply regret that this gesture has been misinterpreted and have unanimously decided to voluntarily return the funds to the County, pending additional guidance from the State of Michigan,” the press release said.
How the money was allotted
According to the Associated Press, the board of commissioners gave $557,000 in hazard pay to 250 county employees, including $65,000 that went to the seven county commissioners, all of whom are Republicans.
The money came from federal relief aid disbursed through the American Rescue Plan Act, which was intended to help communities rebound from the pandemic.
The board awarded bonuses as small as $1,000 to $2,000, but the commissioners received payments between $5,000 and $25,000, the AP reported.
“I think that I earned it,” said Commissioner Cindy Garber, who received a $5,000 payment, WILX 10 reported. “I work really hard at this job. I was here in-person all through this crazy year.”
But at least one commissioner said she didn’t realize she was giving herself a bonus when she voted for the plan.
“I’m giving the money back,” Commissioner Marlene Webster said. “I think one commissioner is giving it to a nonprofit so those actions indicate that we truly did not know this money was coming to us.”
The county prosecutor said it’s against the state constitution
Among those who received a COVID-19 bonus was Shiawassee County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Koerner, who said he began looking into the payments after he received his bonus.
Koerner said he was not involved in the plan to award hazard pay to county employees and officials and was never asked to provide a legal opinion on it.
On Friday, about a week after the payments were approved, Koerner issued a statement saying the bonuses for elected officials violated a provision of the Michigan constitution that barred any “extra compensation for public officers and contractors after services had already been rendered.”
“Like any other hard working employee anywhere, I appreciate being considered for recognition of a job well done,” Koerner said in the statement, “but as an elected official I knew what my salary would be when I ran for office.”
“Not only am I not entitled to this money because of the Michigan constitution, but me giving the money back is just the right thing to do,” he added.
Koerner said that all of the county’s elected officials as well as County Administrator Dr. Brian Boggs had agreed to return their hazard payments.
Koerner added that he hoped the county’s “frontline employees” would still able to benefit from the bonuses. “They are the ones who deserve it,” he said.