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By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

 

Though it has sometimes been difficult for the casual observer to grasp how some projects undertaken lately by Dade County schools fit into the system’s stated push toward improving math skills, recent developments in the county government seem to suggest that arithmetic can indeed be as much a matter of interpretation as anything else.

Case in point: In recent months, the county’s payroll clerk took her own $42,372.99 annual salary, divided by 26 two-week pay periods, and came up with: $1,629.73, $1,789.73, $1,792.77, $1,958.85, 2,021.85, 2,105.81 –

And, in one pay period, $2,302.27.

These numbers, plus a few more, come from a review of Jennifer Hodnick’s pay records, to which the county allowed the Sentinel access pursuant to an open records request. 

Ms. Hodnick is in charge of issuing checks to the 128 individuals on Dade County’s payroll. This includes full-time, part-time, salaried and hourly employees, elected officials – and Ms. Hodnick herself.

And there’s the rub. Ms. Hodnick was placed on a two-week unpaid suspension this month after auditors drew the county commission’s attention to her math in regard to her own paychecks.

“During our review of salary expenditures we noted several salary changes for the payroll clerk throughout the fiscal year with no documentation,” reads one of the “management points” accompanying the county’s fiscal year 2012 financial report. “We recommend that someone outside the payroll process review payroll periodically to ensure that payroll is accurately disbursed, as approved by the Commission.”

For other employees whose pay records the Sentinel also reviewed, gross and net amounts remained constant from pay period to pay period, except during December when full-timers receive $150 in “deferred pay” – actually a kind of seasonal bonus built into their wages or salaries.

For Ms. Hodnick’s own paychecks, though, the amount of current pay for some periods bore no relationship the Sentinel was able to discern with stated salary. Sick and vacation leave payments seemed to continue accruing even when the greater amounts were disbursed, and indeed, there were separate yearly payouts for excess sick time.

Ms. Hodnick was back on the job Monday morning but declined to discuss this matter with the Sentinel.

Dade County Executive Chairman Ted Rumley, who last week characterized what had happened in the Hodnick case as something less than stealing – “If it was a matter of anything like that, she would have been fired on the spot” – on Monday continued to defend her suspension as appropriate punishment for any impropriety on the part of his human resources person.

“That’s what we came up with. That’s what our attorney and everyone in the room agreed to do,” said Rumley.  “It’s not just something that was pulled out of the air. We went through several meetings.”

He said that – as is true for the Sentinel – he had no qualifications as auditor and had had questions about the varying pay amounts himself. “That’s why we had the meetings,” he said. 

Rumley said one of the auditors had attended these meetings, as had the county attorney, Robin Rogers.  “Our attorney was the main person because he tried to do everything legally, especially when you come to personnel, what you can do and you can’t do,” he said. “We went right by the book.”

The Sentinel consulted “the book” – the official Dade County employee handbook – on another point that has come into question in this matter, how and when Dade employees may cash in their excess sick leave.

The handbook spelled out that employees earn 1.85 hours of sick leave every two-week pay period and may carry it over from year to year for a maximum of 160 hours. “Employees having sick leave in excess of 160 hours at the end of the calendar year shall receive compensation at their regular rate of pay for all hours in excess of 160 hours,” reads the policy.

That, explained County Clerk Don Townsend, means that employees with long service and good attendance can, and often do, rack up a maximum of 48-and-a-fraction hours over the 160, which may be cashed out at the end of the year. “It’s just an incentive, I guess, not to take sick time,” he said. 

In November 2012, 24 Dade employees, including Townsend himself, received disbursements for excess sick time. Of those, a good many – also including Townsend himself – received checks for the maximum allowable 48-and-some hours.

What was harder to explain was why five employees received checks for more than that maximum last year. Three employees, including sheriff's department employee Matt Cole, described by Rumley as Ms. Hodnick's fiancé, were paid for 50.55 hours; one employee cashed in a full 80 hours, or two weeks, of sick leave; and Ms. Hodnick paid herself for 68.70 hours.

Rumley said last week, and repeated Monday, that employees with hardship cases or medical emergencies might sometimes ask to cash in their sick pay.  He did not mention the limits delineated in the handbook.

Also last week, Rumley told the Sentinel that Ms. Hodnick was being punished for “inaccuracy in wage reports,” and that those inaccuracies included reporting her own sick or vacation time.

But he suggested then that the “several salary changes for the payroll clerk throughout the fiscal year with no documentation” cited in the financial report referred to belated raises for three sheriff’s department deputies – including Cole – who had been promoted months earlier but only given their pay hikes when outgoing Sheriff Patrick Cannon completed paperwork for them after he was defeated in last summer’s primaries.

Accordingly, the Sentinel asked to review pay records for those employees, Danny Ellis, Tommy Bradford and Cole.  In fact, the three appeared to have received lump sums to make their respective raises retroactive for the period of July through August 2011.

Otherwise, their pay amounts appeared constant from pay period to pay period consistent with their applicable rates of pay, and on Monday Rumley agreed that the financial report’s reference to “several salary changes for the payroll clerk” did indeed signify “several salary changes for the payroll clerk”; or, to put it in mathematical terms, that x=x.

Rumley said the county commission diligently strives to do as the yearly audit suggests but cannot afford to hire more employees to monitor finances, as the audit has suggested more than once.

A final word: The county commission’s office produced the records the Sentinel requested readily enough but in far greater profusion than the Sentinel could have imagined, and dished them up with a letter signed by Clerk Townsend but in whose OCGA citations and lawyerly semicolons the legalistic but patently unmathematical hand of the county attorney was manifest, which required the Sentinel to pay for 236 copies at 10 cents each, plus administrative fees of 4.75 hours billed at $54 an hour, for a total of $77.60.

Townsend did not insist on the fee but allowed the Sentinel to peruse the records inside the commission office free of charge, and he later said the 54 was a typo, and meant to be 12, after which it seems ungrateful, but somehow still necessary, to point out the obvious:

It does not add up.


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