December 22, 2014

Elyria
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Former county auditor cashes in on $18K in unused sick time

ELYRIA — Former Lorain County Auditor Mark Stewart made a brief return to county government in April, long enough to qualify him to cash out 1,000 hours of unused sick time left over from his days as a county employee before he became an elected official in 1995.

The move cost taxpayers $18,080.

County Auditor Craig Snod- grass acknowledged Friday that Stewart, who retired at the end of 2012, worked four hours for him on a Saturday in early April at a rate of $18.08 an hour. His gross pay for his actual time on the clock was $72.32.

Stewart, who is among those pushing to change the form of county government, defended his payout as legal and said he felt he was entitled to payment for his unused sick hours because he earned the benefit while he was a county employee.

Changes in the law, Stewart said, have allowed other county officials, such as Snodgrass and county Recorder Judy Nedwick to cash out their unused sick time when they made the transition. Nedwick worked in the auditor’s transfer office for more than 20 years before being appointed recorder and later elected in her own right.

Those who have been in office longer, including county Treasurer Dan Talarek, will run into the same problem as he did, Stewart said.

“It’s just unfair that others who came after me and so on were able to receive their payout and I was not,” he said.

Snodgrass, who was Stewart’s chief deputy auditor before his boss retired and recommended him as a replacement, said when he became auditor he cashed out both his unused sick and vacation time.

Those holding countywide elective office don’t have set vacation and sick days under Ohio law.

Stewart said he believed he would be able to cash out his unused sick hours when he retired, but then learned he would have to return as a county employee in order to get the money.

Snodgrass said he brought back Stewart to review paperwork filed with the county Board of Revision by property owners challenging the county-set value of their property that determines their property tax bills. His office was short-staffed and Snodgrass said Stewart had the necessary experience to do the work.

Stewart, who is the chairman of the Elyria Democratic Party, worked on April 6. On April 8, Snodgrass said he found a handwritten letter of resignation on his desk.

“After performing reviews of the designated Board of Revision cases, my thoughts are that this work is not what I anticipated and am resigning this opportunity to serve the office,” Stewart wrote. “Thanx (sic) for the opportunity.”

Snodgrass said he had wanted Stewart to do far more work than he did and hadn’t expected such a quick departure from his predecessor.

“I wasn’t happy about it, but if a person doesn’t want to work, I can’t make someone come to work,” he said.

Stewart said he thought four hours of work was fair.

“Probably an hour is too short and eight it too long,” he said.

Snodgrass initially denied that Stewart had worked for him when asked by The Chronicle-Telegram in August. He said Friday that he thought he had said that Stewart had done work at the Board of Revision, but later began to question whether he had been clear enough.

“I thought I was clear,” he said. “I apologize if I wasn’t.”

Stewart, who started as an employee of the county auditor’s office in the 1970s, had built up 1,208.24 hours of unused sick time when he ceased being an employee and became an elected official in 1995, Snodgrass said. Under the laws in place 18 years ago, Stewart was allowed to cash out 151 hours of unused vacation time, which he did, but couldn’t get paid for his unused sick time.

“The sick time kind of stayed on the books as a liability,” Snodgrass said.

For a period of 10 years after he left elective office Stewart was eligible to cash out or use of his unused sick time if he took another government job, Snodgrass said.

By becoming a county employee again, Stewart was able to cash out 1,000 hours worth of the unused sick time and still has 208.24 unused sick hourson the books that he can use if he ever finds himself working in government again.

Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes, who was unaware of Stewart’s brief return stint in county government, said the process was entirely legal. There is no min- imum amount of time a returning employee must work before being allowed to cash out unused sick time, he said.

“Just like anyone else who comes back he’s allowed to go back and recoup what he has in the bank,” Innes said.

Stewart’s brief time in Snodgrass’ office isn’t the only work he’s done that’s earned him a check from a county office this year. He’s also been paid $653 for appraisals he’s done for sheriff ’s sales as an independent contractor for county Sheriff Phil Stammitti’s office.

In that role Stewart isn’t considered a county employee, Stammitti said. He is paid out of the court costs for cases that end with property being sold at sheriff ’s sale and the checks are issued by county Clerk of Courts Ron Nabakowski’s office.

Stammitti said he didn’t know that Stewart had worked for Snodgrass for four hours in April or about the sick leave payout. He said his staff maintains a list of appraisers and Stewart asked him if he could get on that list and Stammitti told him to submit a resume to his staff.

“I asked their opinion and they said they think he’s more than qualified and I do too,” the sheriff said.

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