In these times of shrinking tax bases and tightening budgets for government entities throughout much of the Mahoning Valley, public officials must spare no energies to ensure every tax dollar is spent prudently.
They must comb through every nook and cranny of their jurisdiction to find any and all places where efficiencies in operations can be improved and accountability to the public can be enhanced.
In Trumbull County government, that mission extends to all offices and departments under the purview of the board of county commissioners, including the county coroner’s office.
It is there that two members of the 12-citizen Budget Review Committee, established early this year to advise commissioners on financial matters, discovered work and payroll practices that could suggest taxpayers may not be getting the biggest bangs for their bucks.
Specifically, committee members Mike Bollas and John Talstein said their investigation into that office concluded that the on-call system used to guarantee that a coroner’s investigator answers calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, leaves open the possibility that those employees could be doing insufficient work for their $43,000 average base salary (about $61,000 when fringe benefits are factored in).
That’s because the current protocol requires the four investigators to log only eight hours per week of actual work on cases and coroner’s tasks with the other 32 hours spend handling on-call duties, such as taking or making phone calls from anywhere, including at home.
What’s more, as The Vindicator reported in a Page 1 story Sunday, those investigators are not required to keep records of calls to document that they indeed were working during those handsomely paid on-call hours.
Even more disturbing, however, is an apparent lack of strong oversight by their supervisor, Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk, who serves the dual role of county coroner and forensic pathologist.
“He [Dr. Germaniuk] basically lets us do our thing, and he signs payroll every week, but he didn’t realize how we did our hours,” said Shelley Mazanetz, the coroner’s chief investigator.
Such a scenario, if indeed true, suggests the type of office in which employees get relatively free rein and a supervisor shirks his duties of strong oversight and exacting financial controls.
Unfortunately, Dr. Germaniuk failed to return numerous phone calls to this newspaper last week to get his needed side of the story. Nor did the coroner respond to multiple attempts by Trumbull County Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa about wage and work policies in his office, the officeholder said.
Cantalamessa calls the office practices “a cause for concern.”
We agree strongly, particularly if those operations are unnecessarily draining the already dried-up coffers of the county.
CONVENE OPEN HEARING
We therefore recommend that county commissioners Dan Polivka, Frank Fuda and Cantalamessa convene an open hearing in the near future with Dr. Germaniuk, his investigators and the budget review panel’s Talstein and Bollas to determine whether revisions need to be made to work rules and pay protocols to better ensure maximum transparency and accountability to the taxpaying public.
In the end, commissioners might strongly encourage the coroner who as an elected administrator has final say-so on pay policies to implement changes, such as keeping logs for all phone calls to investigators and/or requiring investigators to spend more time in the office.
They could look at procedures from their neighbors to the south. In Mahoning County, investigators who earn about $10,000 less annually, work more traditional 40-hour weeks of office time with one week per month spent on call.
But regardless of what course might be chosen, the county can ill afford any intimation that its employees are not earning their keep. That would hardly win over skeptical county residents if they would be called to support tax increases, particularly in light of the loss of millions of dollars of Medicaid sales-tax revenue this year and the loss two years from now of millions in buffer funds the state is providing.
Dr. Germaniuk and the county coroner’s office, which generally have enjoyed a positive public image for its professional handling of the devastating opiate crisis in its midst, should do all possible to remove any stain that threatens its public trust and credibility.