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Unapproved longevity payments to Stark County commissioners disclosed

In a bombshell announcement during the regularly scheduled commission meeting on Tuesday, June 1, Commissioner Carla Arthaud brought to the public's attention alleged unauthorized longevity payments made behind closed doors to Stark County commissioners in 2019 and 2020.

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Stark County Commissioners review accounts payable. (Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / The Dickinson Press)

In a bombshell announcement during the regularly scheduled commission meeting on Tuesday, June 1, Commissioner Carla Arthaud brought to the public's attention alleged unauthorized longevity payments made to Stark County commissioners in 2019 and 2020. According to Arthaud, the payments were made without commission approval and behind closed doors.

Longevity payments are intended to serve as a recruitment and retention program for government and private entities, and are additional wages or other compensation given on the basis of length of employment.

The announcement raises the question — are commissioners employees of Stark County?

Arthaud, who does not consider commissioners to be employees, called for the funds to be returned to the county and that considerations be made to review the process leading to the disbursement of the funds, which was made through a budget adjustment totaling $21,444.75.

The unexpected announcement comes in the midst of a months-long ongoing consideration to change the county auditor role from an elected position to an appointment by the commission. Public feedback has overwhelmingly been critical of the change — with a sole supporter of the change speaking at the public commentary sessions.

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The position of the auditor is directly responsible for many important fiscal management concerns of the county, in addition to numerous other responsibilities — including oversight, auditing and public notification of payments like those of the longevity rewards raised in the meeting.

According to Arthaud, commissioners have not received longevity payments since a 2005 unanimous 5-0 vote called for employees of the county to receive the payments — but expressly denied said benefits to elected commissioners.

Records obtained by The Press indicate that some commissioners, whose position as employees remains legally unclear pending a review by Stark County State's Attorney Amanda Engelstad, did receive longevity payments in addition to other benefit payments, which includes more than $1,200 awarded to some commissioners for “travel” to the meetings.

According to the direct deposit receipts for 2019, Commissioners Ken Zander and former Commissioner Jay Elkin received longevity payments totaling $5,560 and $2,164, respectively. Direct deposit receipts obtained for 2020 confirmed that Zander received another $759.50 and Elkin received $507.50, while former Commissioner Pete Kuntz received $1,344 and Commissioner Dean Franchuk received $324.00.

In 2019, Kuntz received the largest single payment at $11,172.

Zander raised the concern with the interpretation of elected officials as not being classified as employees for benefits, citing that such a move could have wide-reaching consequences for positions such as the auditor, sheriff and more.

"I was led to believe that this was a practice from the past, even prior to my being on the commission," Zander said. "I don't know that for a fact, but it's my understanding that county commissioners as elected officials are county employees, and as county employees are entitled to a benefits package. If a county commissioner chooses not to accept a benefit, that is that individual elected official's choice."

Commissioner Neal Messer said he had yet to see the documents concerning the issue, but agreed that in his view commissioners are not employees of the county.

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"I don't consider myself in the role of a traditional employee, 2,000 hours and all those kind of things. I do the role of a commissioner as a director in that regard and not subject to a traditional employee package," Messer said. "I think it is a great opportunity to have this whole discussion and a great opportunity to do the research into what happened and how it happened, and to make sure that as we go forward, we do so in the ways and wishes of the commissioners."

Messer added in response to Zander that he didn't feel that the longevity payments were part of the benefits package.

"Retirement, medical and that is up to the individual commissioner because it is a part of the package, but this is kind of a subsequent storyline," he said.

Arthaud said she agreed, asking that if longevity was part of the benefits package then why did it just start in 2019.

"Such great amounts were written; why wasn't this offered to fellow commissioners or past commissioners?" she said. "It didn't happen past 2005 because there was a motion made by the five county commissioners and that motion was 'no,' so if it was wanted to be reimplemented on the longevity side, then it should have been brought back to the five county commissioners and said that we want to change this policy."

Arthaud added, "Otherwise, why do we make motions and have policies if we just have four signatures on a piece of paper that says, 'hey, we want to have longevity now' and it's done behind closed doors and not brought forward to the public?"

Discussions on the matter were tabled, pending review by Engelstad, and scheduled for discussion at the July 6 meeting.

James B. Miller, Jr. is the Editor of The Dickinson Press in Dickinson, North Dakota. He strives to bring community-driven, professional and hyper-local focused news coverage of southwest North Dakota.
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