November 23, 2014

Elyria
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Commissioners’ office assistants on the brink of layoff

ELYRIA — Lorain County’s general fund budget will be roughly $53.7 million next year, but the county commissioners can’t agree on where to cut $100,000 to hit that budget goal.

During a sometimes-heated work session Tuesday, the county’s two Democratic commissioners, Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski, pushed to eliminate the jobs of their personal assistants. Republican Commissioner Tom Williams opposed the move, calling it a politically motivated effort aimed at getting rid of the one person he trusts in county government — his assistant, Neil Lynch.

He said he feels that the other employees in the commissioners’ office answer to Kalo and Kokoski rather than him and even report back his information requests to the other commissioners.

“What they’re trying to do is isolate me to where it’s going to be harder for me to do an effective job for the residents of this county,” Williams said after the meeting.

Both Kalo and Kokoski denied that politics played a part in their effort to eliminate the $35,000-per-year assistant jobs.

“You can’t call it political because I’m losing an assistant, too,” Kalo said.

The commissioners plan to give out pay increases of 3 percent to county workers, many of whom haven’t seen a raise in years even as their job responsibilities have increased as the county has shed workers to deal with budget shortfalls. They also are planning to increase the amount of money they give to several departments, including county Coroner Stephen Evans and county Prosecutor Dennis Will.

This year’s budget is around $52.5 million.

County Administrator Jim Cordes said it wasn’t fair to ask people to take on more work and increased health and retirement costs while not receiving a raise. The county might need to trim services to provide residents with the more limited government they’ve asked for with repeated rejections of sales tax hikes in recent years, he said.

“Sometimes you stretch your staff so thin all you get is poor results,” Cordes said.

Kokoski and Kalo said it was actually Cordes who recommended eliminating the assistant positions earlier this year, and Kokoski said she brought the idea up again during an executive session last week.

She said she felt that the assistant jobs were the best place to cut that would have the least impact on direct services to the public.

“There’s no fluff left anymore. That’s the problem,” she said.

The commissioners’ clerk, Theresa Upton, said there are only five counties in the state where the commissioners have individual personal assistants.

Cordes said he actually meant that he thought it would be better if there was one assistant for all three commissioners. That led to a discussion of who would be better to keep, Lynch or Kalo’s assistant, Toni Shanahan. Kokoski’s assistant, Joyce Parks, is due to retire.

Kalo said he felt Shanahan, whom he described as his right arm, would be a better choice since she has been doing the job throughout his two terms as a commissioner. Williams said Lynch, who also is an Amherst Township trustee, would be a better pick because he has a college degree.

But Kalo also said he thinks the best way to save the $100,000 would be by eliminating all of the assistant positions, including Shanahan.

Kokoski said that she would like to hire a part-time employee to work for the commissioners and sit on the county’s Board of Revision. She said that job shouldn’t go to either Lynch or Shanahan because of the trust issues that would accompany their appointment to such a position. The commissioners, Kokoski said, should find a person all three of them can agree on.

During the meeting, Williams made several suggestions for other areas the commissioners could reduce spending in order to keep their assistants, including eliminating the $25,000 the commissioners pay each year for a professional videographer to tape and edit their meetings for public broadcast.

Kalo and Kokoski rejected the videographer suggestion, which Williams has unsuccessfully pushed in the past.

Williams also said most county departments return money at the end of the year and that they could reduce the money the commissioners appropriate for some of those departments next year in order to keep the assistants on the job.

Williams said the county estimates it will have a carryover of $8 million from 2012 into 2013 and about the same amount going into 2014 — Cordes said he thinks the 2014 figure will be lower — and there must be somewhere else to find a place to cut $100,000.

“It kind of surprised me,” Kalo said of Williams’ opposition to the proposal. “With Tom it’s cut, cut, cut — until it comes to us, and he doesn’t want to cut.”

Williams said he thinks his fellow commissioners have already made up their minds on the assistant issue.

“They’re not willing to go through and look anywhere else in the county,” he said.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.