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‘You’re damn right I ordered the raises’

Published: Sun, February 13, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Todd Franko (Contact)

The business of public employment is taking a beating — around the country, in Columbus and even down at the Mahoning County Commission.

And, also, in this space the past couple of weeks.

It appears draconian in some ways, if you watch the agendas of governors such as John Kasich here or Chris Christie in New Jersey.

To be fair, there is ample evidence of thousands of workers doing great service, extending great care and, in some cases, making great concessions to serve their communities and schools.

But to their detriment, some leaders in too many of those organizations just do not get it. I believe this of the cities, counties, courts and schools. And I believe this of the leadership at the elected, management and union levels.

Draconian, sadly, may be the only way to get some of them to get it. “Them” was on display this week in Mahoning County.

While Kasich tackled public-union strength in Columbus, and Christie fired 71 Jersey sewer commissioners, we tried to understand how our elected officials handed out 10-, 15- and 20-percent pay raises to already top-paid managers.

County Engineer Richard Marsico was first this week to explain. He said that of the $70,000 in January pay raises, only $35,000 was truly for pay raises. The other $35,000 in extra wages actually was rolling into managers’ wages their existing expenses for clothes, boots and cell phones.

Those are typically expenses that, in the private sector, you want tracked.

More specifically to our current economic climate, those are expenses that often are discontinued to tighten spending.

But in Marsico’s form of government, those expenses are not tracked, and instead are buried into wages — which coincidentally contributes to a sweeter pension accumulation and payout upon retirement.

More troubling is that the reimbursements for clothes and boots have gone to engineers’ clerical workers, and the money was automatic and never verified that it truly was used for clothes, boots or phones.

If Marsico owned Marsico & Marsico Engineering Co., this would be solely his choice. But as he owns part of the $3 per gallon of gas we fill up with every minute of every day, I think the majority of us would disagree with his logic or methodology.

Though Marsico’s explanation was troubling, county Prosecutor Paul Gains was downright entertaining (while still being troubling).

To frame his presentation — and I think the eight of us in attendance would agree, picture Jack Nicholson on the witness stand in “A Few Good Men.”

The vision still in my head is Nicholson at the trial, and he’s yelling “You’re damn right I ordered the pay raises!”

Gains’ presentation even shared Nicholson’s themes of workers attacking crime and disgust that most people would rather not face.

All true. All righteous. But the court diatribe falls short in the bigger picture of overall county operations and laid-off deputies and $32,000-salary child-welfare workers and 10 percent unemployment and sluggish retail on U.S. 224 and ... .

In defending his criminal convictions, his caseload and his countywide role, Gains was Tom Cruise-like and accurate. In discussing his fiscal operations, he was not.

Two examples to illustrate the challenge of doing business with Gains and his staff:

When a commissioner interrupted a point Gains was winding his way through, Gains snapped: “Don’t interrupt me, please. I didn’t do it to you.”

Welllll ... he did. At least four or five times before that moment.

The most humorous of which was when Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti was winding her way through a spending history to which she was, I think, going to get to a question.

Gains started answering her narrative. Didn’t wait for her question. Commissioner John McNally IV tried to slow down Gains. But you don’t slow down "Colonel Nathan R. Jessep .... United States Marine Corps ... Guantanamo Bay Naval Base .... Cuba."

Second example: Linette Stratford, who is Gains’ chief of the civil division, tried to chime in a couple of times. She got “The Hand” brush off from Gains, as well as a couple of dismissive “Quiet Linette!” lines.

The exchanges were hardly horrific. They just were not conference-table, but more kitchen-table — if you grew up in the ’50s belief that one gender had a lesser role.

What all of this adds up to — I have no idea.

It’s clearly difficult to have a discussion with Gains about his business. You can certainly listen to him.

Commissioners quietly did and will take up the issue this Tuesday.

The structure of county operations is such that, though all 20 elected officials share in one funding source — us — they will spend it with 20 different value measures, knowing we won’t be able to keep score of all of them.

Some will spend it as they see fit, regardless of the economic and employment realities faced by us.

They lose score of their spending because ultimately, they are not pulling it out of their own wallet like a private business owner does.

That’s a truth they truly can’t handle.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes e-mails about stories and our newspaper. E-mail him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com.

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