Two city employees will receive $20,000 each for their work in the administration of a coronavirus relief grant in an issue that has caused some dismay for a city commissioner.
The Parsons City Commission in an earlier meeting had discussed in closed sessions an employee leasing agreement between the city and Labette County. The agreement formally set the roles of Jim Zaleski, economic development director, and Laura Moore, community development director, in the administration of the county’s Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas grant and the payments they would receive. Following the executive sessions on Oct. 5, the commission tabled the agreement so that City Attorney Ross Albertini could make changes.
Albertini decided that because Labette County was paying the city directly for the work of the two employees, no agreement was needed between the county and city. Instead, as a requirement of the Kansas Public Employees Retirement System, an agreement was needed between the city and the employees. That agreement was to be included on the commission’s agenda for Monday but has since been dropped because KPERS told city staff that only City Manager Debbie Lamb needed to sign it.
Zaleski and Moore have been the main administrators of the grant program that is distributing $3.9 million to cities, school districts and other entities within the county such as Labette Health and Labette Center for Mental Health Services. Counties are allowed to spend up to 5% on administration of their grants, meaning Labette County could have spent $195,000. Instead, the county agreed to pay the city $100,000. Of that, Zaleski and Moore will get $20,000 each, with the remaining $60,000 going to the city’s general fund.
Although Zaleski and Moore have been working on the project along with their regular city duties for several months, the city staff had only recently discovered that KPERS would require a formal agreement because Zaleski and Moore would be getting paid additional money over the salaries the city had budgeted.
The commissioners discussed the agreement during a Thursday afternoon work session before the issue was dropped from their agenda.
Commissioner Tom Shaw expressed his frustration with the lack of communication regarding the agreement. He said commissioners weren’t consulted or even informed about the payments to Zaleski and Moore until receiving their agenda packets on Oct. 2, just three days before the Oct. 5 meeting.
“To me, it’s just a hard knock against something we talked about before. It’s communication between the city manager and the city commission and this is … an example of that,” Shaw said.
Shaw said the issue creates a problem because if he questioned the amount the two employees will make it would seem as if he is devaluing their work.
“The whole thing puts me in an embarrassing spot, just to be honest about it,” Shaw said.
Shaw also said if the amount could be determined without the commission’s involvement, the commission shouldn’t have to be involved now. That is what prompted the city staff to determine whether or not commission approval was needed or not.
Lamb was both apologetic and defensive regarding Shaw’s comments.
“As I’ve apologized many times, I’m very sorry it happened,” Lamb said.
Lamb said she doesn’t want Zaleski or Moore to be punished if she did something wrong.
“Well, I don’t think it’s an ‘if I have done something wrong,’” Shaw said.
“OK. I have done something wrong,” Lamb responded.
Shaw then said he was sorry for being blunt and appreciates the work Lamb does. He said he also makes bad decisions sometimes. It was the timing and the flow of information that was not optimal, Shaw said.
Mayor Jeff Perez came to Lamb’s defense by saying that there are so many unknowns during the pandemic. People are frightened about their businesses and the possibility of getting infected.
“In the heat of battle, maybe some things do get overlooked, but that was then, this is now,” Perez said.
Commissioner Kevin Cruse said he was taken aback at first with the amount for administration of the grant, but after considering it he thought it was a fair amount. Cruse said an administration fee of 3.9% is “really, really small” compared to the amount a company would charge the county. Before the agreement was pulled from the agenda, Cruse said he was still considering the issue.
The county had to either contract with someone outside to do the work or pay the city, Zaleski and Moore, Cruse said. There were hundreds of pages to review and a lot of phone calls to be made.
“There was a lot of footwork done with this,” Cruse said.
Lamb said that the money Zaleski and Moore will receive is not a matter of being paid for excess time worked but instead for their expertise. The two could have left city employment instead of agreeing to manage the grant program, Lamb said. She said they could have started their own consulting company and make five times the money they make now or more, so she felt they should receive extra compensation to show appreciation. According to an August 2019 payroll report from the city, Moore was making $57,158 and Zaleski $64,459.
“OK. I was wrong. I don’t feel I was totally wrong, but I’ll take that,” Lamb said.
Lamb said nothing has been normal in the last several months because of the pandemic. At times during one conversation four to five topics can arise. Lamb said she should have asked for the commission’s input.