July 23, 2014

Elyria
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Commissioners vote 2-1 to get rid of their assistants

ELYRIA — In a 2-1 vote Wednesday, Lorain County commissioners fired their assistants.

Commissioner Tom Williams, the lone Republican on the board, voted against the move, arguing that he felt the assistants were too valuable to lose.

The vote came a day after the commissioners clashed over the possibility of eliminating their assistants during a budget work session.

Williams has accused his fellow commissioners, Democrats Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski, of targeting his assistant, Amherst Township Trustee Neil Lynch, for political reasons. Kokoski’s assistant, Joyce Parks, is retiring, but Kalo voted to fire his longtime assistant, Toni Shanahan.

Kalo and Kokoski both denied politics had anything to do with the firings, which are scheduled to take effect Jan. 25. Kalo said he didn’t want to lose Shanahan, but it was the best place to cut the budget.

“This just turned into a free-for-all when it wasn’t,” he said. “It’s regular budget stuff. This one just hits close to home.”
The commissioners are considering a part-time assistant to work for all three of them.

The firings were the lone sticking point between the three commissioners before they voted to approve a 2013 budget of just shy of $53.7 million. They agreed to reduce their own budget line item by about $100,000 and vote separately on whether to fire the assistants.

The budget, which included 3 percent raises for many county employees, was unanimously approved, although the commissioners all noted that it will likely change next year.

Williams had argued that the commissioners could find another place to save money, including by slashing the $25,000 the commissioners pay a professional videographer to record and edit their meetings for broadcast. Kalo and Kokoski rejected that idea, which Williams has unsuccessfully pushed before.

Williams also said numerous county departments routinely return money at the end of the year and the commissioners could reduce some of the money they give some of those departments next year.

But Kalo said that doing so would reduce the $8 million carryover many county officials believe the county will have going into 2014. This year’s carryover also is around $8 million.

“I just think he doesn’t remember that we’re here to balance the budget,” Kalo said.

Williams said he didn’t think that at this point Kokoski and Kalo would have agreed to any suggestion he made to cut the budget.

“Right now I’m second-guessing everything they say,” he said.

By delaying their assistants’ last day, Kalo and Kokoski said it would give Williams time to further examine the budget for other areas where they could make a cuts. Williams said he’s hopeful that a nonprofit will step in to take over running some of the juvenile facilities now operated by the courts, something he hopes will save enough money to keep the
assistants working.

But Kalo and Kokoski said they doubted such a deal would come together. Kokoski said that even if it did, the money might be better spent elsewhere in the county rather than on assistants she described as a “luxury.” For instance, Kokoski said she’d like to see the county’s phone system return to having live operators.

The operators were laid off several years ago as the commissioners grappled with budget shortfalls.

Kokoski said it’s possible the commissioners will end up having to make further budget cuts next year. The $100,000 budget short fall was just “tip of the iceberg,” she said.

“It’s even deeper than that,” she said.

Kalo said the county doesn’t have a spending problem but rather needs to find ways to bring in additional revenue. Voters have rejected several attempts to raise the county’s sales tax in recent years.

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