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Controller's, treasurer's pay hikes startle Allegheny County Council

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By Bill Vidonic
Friday, Jan. 13, 2012
 

Thirty-five percent salary increases this year for the Allegheny County controller and treasurer may have surprised and dismayed some county council members, but that may be because they did not read budget documents and don't like state law, officials said on Thursday.

Councilman William Robinson, chair of the budget and finance committee, said everyone should have known about the pay raises for new county Controller Chelsa Wagner and longtime county Treasurer John Weinstein.

"It should not have been a surprise to anyone who was familiar with the budget process or anyone who read through the budget process," said Robinson.

Council discussed the raises during 2012 budget hearings in November, he said, and they are outlined in budget paperwork.

Councilman Matt Drozd, who represents municipalities including Ross and Moon, said the information "might have been buried somewhere in the budget conference" but was not discussed as a whole by the 15-member county council.

"I think we need to discuss this," Drozd said.

Weinstein and Wagner's attorney said they believe the raises are fair. "Everybody has expenses that go up in their lives, and I'm no different," Weinstein said.

If county council members have a problem with the raises, Robinson said, they should take up the issue with state legislators. State law empowered the then-board of commissioners to establish the salaries of the three officials and grant cost-of-living increases. The raises represent unclaimed cost-of-living increases dating back to 2001.

Robinson said he did not have a problem with the raises, despite the county's financial struggles.

"Pay increases are never a popular thing with anyone," he said.

The annual salaries for Weinstein, treasurer since 1999, and Wagner, who took office Jan. 2, rise from $66,500 to $89,904.

"Holy cow, I wish I got a raise like that," said Hampton resident Geraldine Morici, 72, a registered Democrat. "I'm not too happy about that with times the way they are."

Allegheny County Council Vice President Nick Futules, who represents District 7, said he learned of the raises on Wednesday from a news report. County Council would look into the matter, he said.

"We are currently short-staffed in our office, but I'm sure we will have answers sooner rather than later," Futules said.

Wagner told the Tribune-Review last week that she will not begin drawing a county salary until she resigns her state House seat, which pays her $82,000 a year in salary, plus health and retirement benefits. She said that would be when Democratic leadership assures her that her constituents will be served as reapportionment moves her district to Allentown.

Weinstein said he has not taken a cost-of-living increase in more than a decade, saving taxpayers $150,000. "This was not a back-door pay increase. The process was thoroughly transparent," he said.

Brad Korinski, chief legal counsel for Wagner, said she did not learn about her raise until after she took office. He did not know who pushed for it but said she will accept it.

"Wagner has been in favor of cost-of-living increases generally throughout her career," Korinski said. "(Cost-of-living raises) are widely accepted as objective, fiscally prudent and nonpolitical for determining compensation for elected officials."

The legality of the raises is not in dispute, county Solicitor Michael Wojcik wrote in a Dec. 27 letter to elected officials.

Before the county switched to a home-rule charter and county council system, the commissioners in 1999 decided that the controller, treasurer and sheriff, as elected row officers, could ask for cost-of-living raises that matched union-negotiated raises, starting in 2001.

Sheriff William Mullen declined his pay raise. His salary remains at $64,000.

"It just was not the time for me now," Mullen said, declining further comment.

County Council voted last month to raise property taxes 21 percent in part to defray state cuts for human service programs.

"People out there are hurting right now," Drozd said.

Weinstein said he followed procedures set out in the Dec. 27 letter from Wojcik, who said the raises should be included as a line item in the budget and "shall be discussed by the appropriate row officer before County Council as part of the annual budget adoption process."

The letter also states that the row officer simply has to submit a form to the controller's office claiming the change in pay. Weinstein signed his on Dec. 28, and Deputy Controller Guy Tumolo signed one on the following day.

Wagner did not sign her form, but Tumolo signed it on her behalf on Dec. 30, before she took office.

Tumolo said he was "surprised" to see Wojcik's letter about the increases, and that he and former Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty discussed it. Flaherty "felt that it had to be initiated before the end of the year, and he was unavailable to sign it, so I signed it," Tumolo said.

Flaherty, who left office on Dec. 31, would not discuss the matter yesterday.

Wojcik said he did not know who asked for the legal opinion on the raises that sparked the Dec. 27 letter. He said County Council could overturn the legislation that allowed the increase.

Both Weinstein and Korinski said the increases won't mean that someone else gets a pay cut or that a position will go unfilled. Weinstein's annual budget of nearly $5.8 million, and Wagner's of nearly $6.4 million will cover the pay raises.

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