TOWNSEND — A series of closed door meetings, personnel disputes and about $500,000 in controversial financial actions in Broadwater County is causing consternation to both residents and elected officials.
County Commissioner Laura Obert compared their woes to a “perfect storm” that includes the national recession, local personality conflicts, computer glitches and decisions made by previous commissions that they’re now paying for.
“It’s been very tough lately,” Obert said last Thursday, one day after the latest contentious county meeting in which the commission tried to close the doors to the public to discuss personnel issues, but people refused to leave the room.
“Broadwater County is better than this. I feel so horrible that all of this is going on,” she said.
But Commissioner Franklin Slifka, who handily beat incumbent Commissioner Gail Vennes with 67 percent of the vote last November, said the problems lie directly at Obert’s feet. He ran on a platform of cutting spending and increasing transparency, and since he came on board in January, Slifka often is at odds with Obert. He said she’s lied to him and he believes she’s harassing the county finance officer. He wants that to stop and Obert to be held accountable.
“As long as you go along with her everything is fine,” Slifka said. “They have been making mistakes for the last couple of years and there are some big problems. People keep saying there’s no transparency and they’re hiding all this stuff.”
Obert said she’s only trying to follow Broadwater County policies and procedures in order to ensure everyone knows what to expect.
“I have done my job and been very, very conservative with my budget,” Obert said. “When a department head, or even the sheriff, says, ‘I want more money,’ my questions is always ‘Do you have it in your budget or can you find it in your budget’ and that hasn’t been well received.”
She noted that according to the latest census, Broadwater County is one of the fastest growing communities in Montana. Developers were beating down the doors at the planning department, promising McMansions surrounded by golf courses and lots of additional revenue.
In response to all the activity, Obert said the county either added new employees or gave additional duties to existing ones without a lot of thought as to what the future would hold. Now they’re experiencing the consequences, which are leading to disputes among staff and the commission.
“We didn’t have an overriding plan,” Obert said. “What’s missing right now is the ability to disagree and argue while still being respectful to each other. We don’t have to like each other, but we have to work together. We need to follow policies and procedures.”
Commission Chairperson Elaine Graveley is saddened by the conflict in the county, and noted that the stress created by it has harmed her health.
“We are all in this boat together and it’s important that we work together for the people of Broadwater County. I’m concerned about that,” Graveley said. “There are some people that just thrive on turmoil and I’m not sure that’s not going on.”
$114,000 turn lanes
The national recession hit hard in Broadwater County. Bozeman-area developers had bought a lot of farmland in the southern half of the county with the dream of turning them into subdivisions with names like “Rolling Glen” and “Wheatland Meadows.” Today, only a handful of the lots have homes on them and close to 4,000 parcels are still for sale.
During the housing boom in 2005, developer Greg Schob and his partners promised Broadwater County that they would install turn lanes into their subdivision off of Highway 287 into Wheatland Meadows. It was expected to cost about $350,000, but the men said they’d cover the cost. Based on their promises, the county contracted with the state to have the work done, because the MDT isn’t set up to take money from developers.
Then the lots didn’t sell and the bank decided it wouldn’t loan the developers any more money.
“So in 2011 the state came to the county and said they were doing passing lanes and they could do the turn lanes for only $114,000,” Obert recalled. “The department already had a contract (with the county) so the question became when the developer didn’t have the money, six years later what do you do? We actually were saving the taxpayers about $240,000.”
The state called for the cash earlier this year, and in February, with a 2-1 vote — Slifka in opposition — the commission agreed to pay the state $57,050 now, and the other half in January 2014. The money comes from the Payment In Lieu of Taxes or PILT fund, which the federal government pays the county for all of Broadwater’s nontaxable public lands.
Slifka saw it as a free personal loan to the developer.
“I was talking to a guy who said he wants to put in a pivot. Is the county going to give me money for that? Slifka asked rhetorically at the Feb. 4 meeting. “People are going to think it’s what we do for developers.”
Obert and Graveley countered that they already were required to pay the money based on the 2005 contract with the state, and that under the newest agreement with Schob, he’s making payments and they are holding some of the lots as collateral.
“The developer really wants to work with the county and everyone who has worked with him says he’s good for the money,” Obert said. “He has payments to make every month and a five-year balloon. I’m optimistic about this guy, based on his history with the county.”
Slifka said he’s not holding his breath waiting to be paid back. He said Obert told him Schob had made a payment to the county, but when he went to the treasurer’s office he didn’t find any record of it.
“She lied to me,” he said.
in school funds
On Monday, commissioners learned they were still on the hook for around $290,000 — the first half of the annual payment — to the Townsend School District and the Three Forks schools, which educate some Broadwater County students.
The way their funding works is the schools set their annual budgets and bring them to the county, which decides how many mills it will have to levy to fully fund the budgets. The county collects all of the taxes, then disburses them to entities like the school districts.
For the past six years, however, the county has not been levying enough mills to cover the schools’ budgets. They used up all the fund reserves in three years, and for the past three years have been giving the schools their money but running the funds with a negative balance — essentially using other tax dollars for the schools.
The problem came to light in October, after the schools realized they had not been paid this year. But it wasn’t because the county hadn’t collected the taxes; instead, the reason for the nonpayment was new computer software that was installed wasn’t working correctly, so the county wasn’t cutting checks to the schools until it figured out the computer glitch.
Last Monday, the commission met with school officials, who voiced concerns that they still hadn’t been paid and suggested they bring in someone from the Montana Association of Counties. Slifka also mentioned that he’d spoken with Department of Justice officials and said they might need to investigate the county.
Doug Ellis, who was elected Broadwater County treasurer in November, said he doesn’t know why the fund was allowed to operate at a deficit for so long. But they increased the number of mills levied for the schools last year — about $80 for the average home — and will continue to do so for the next two years to try to correct the problem. Until then, however, at times the funds will still show negative amounts.
On Friday, he said he’s sending the Townsend School District $272,326, and will pay them monthly from now on. He was mailing the Three Forks Schools a check for $18,353 on Friday too.
“That’s for transportation and retirement accounts,” Ellis said.
Obert said she left the meeting frustrated that the commissioners didn’t realize that they weren’t col-lecting enough school dollars to keep those funds in the black, but when she asked a MACo official about it later, he told here there was no reason the commission would ever see the budget or revenue reports for those funds. That’s because it’s not the county’s money, but funds being held by the county treasurer in trust for another agency.
“We frankly didn’t even know those funds existed. We were kept completely out of the loop and I don’t know why,” Obert said. “When you don’t know something exists, you don’t know where to look for it. But we know it exists now and we will be looking at all those funds at our Monday meeting.”
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$75,000 for back pay
Also this week, during a special meeting, the three elected volunteer commissioners sat down across the table from Sheriff Brenda Ludwig, Teamsters Union Representative Bill Rowe, Undersheriff Wynn Meehan and the Detention Center Captain Nick Korthals. They had gathered, as they had in the past, to figure out where they’d come up with at least $75,000 in back pay owed to about 20 deputies and detention center employees who are in the Teamsters union.
The back pay came after an arbitrator ruled that a $1 an hour raise given in 2011 to two employees triggered the “me too” clause in the union’s contract, which stated that if any city employee received a raise, so did the seven deputies and 13 detention center staffers.
“When they gave the dollar per hour increase, we filed a grievance under the ‘me too’ clause in our contract,” Rowe said. “This had a Jan. 14 implementation date, and you have only so many days to do this before we take you to court.”
Obert said that while she believes the officers deserve raises, this isn’t the way to go about getting them. The commission fought the grievance because Obert, Graveley and Vennes believed that the two employees who received the $1 per hour raises had also been promoted and given additional duties, which Obert said she thought was outside the “me too” clause.
“We didn’t think the ‘me too’ clause applied to that situation,” Obert said. “It stated basically that any raise afforded an employee needs to be given equally to all employees. We thought that meant if we gave cost of living raises to employees that the union also would get that. We didn’t think promotions were part of that.”
An arbitrator didn’t agree, and they were ordered to pay the money. The question that the commission and Ludwig, Meehan, Korthals and Rowe next couldn’t agree upon, though, was where the money would come from.
Obert was adamant that they could find the money in the sheriff and detention center’s budgets. Ludwig and Korthals said that would hamstring their operations. Rowe said that also smacked of being punitive.
Graveley opened Wednesday’s meeting with a subtle warning to those at the table.
“I’ve been thinking about this and thinking about this and it’s important that everyone show respect for one another and act accordingly,” Graveley said.
That was followed by an hourlong discussion about reports not being shared and whether a transfer was an error or not and whether they could take from Peter to pay Paul. As tensions rose in the room amid a threat by Rowe to take the matter to court, a frustrated Slifka noted they weren’t getting anywhere.
Obert said they weren’t dragging their feet but taking their time to be prudent. Rowe countered that the union guys had waited for a year and a half to get what was legally theirs.
“They have been patient. We need to get this thing done,” Rowe said.
“We were waiting too,” Obert said. “It was the arbitrator, and I hope the membership realizes that.”
Once again, they took the money from the PILT fund. The unanimous resolution, however, didn’t address where the money for the raises will come from during the next fiscal year, or for the remainder of this year.
What some are calling personality clashes among Broadwater County employees and elected officials got even more personal at a Jan. 22 county commission meeting, which by some accounts came close to a physical altercation between Finance Officer Natalie Wenzel and County Attorney Karla Bosse.
“The county attorney was smack in her face,” said county resident Cheryl Campbell, who watched the drama unfold. “Natalie kept backing up, trying to get away from her.”
Wenzel wanted to release internal county documents, which she said included allegations of inappropriate conduct by county officials, to the public. Bosse said that could violate privacy laws.
“The finance officer’s husband grabbed the papers and said that she wouldn’t take them from him,” Campbell added.
Last week, the two squared off again as Bosse recommended the commission close a meeting to the public to discuss “legal strategy” regarding Wenzel and potential litigation. Members of the public, however, refused to leave the room and the meeting abruptly was adjourned.
The commissioners have held at least nine closed-door meetings in the past seven months to discuss “personnel matters” or ongoing litigation, involving Wenzel, the union, or possibly other employees or lawsuits.
The recent attempt by the commission to meet privately was part of what Wenzel says is a long-term pattern of harassment against her first by Obert and now by Bosse. Wenzel said the two are trying to create a hostile work environment; that under Obert’s direction she was unfairly “written up” for insubordination and other offenses in January 2012; and that her office has been moved from the main floor into the courthouse basement.
Wenzel said she’s scared that they’re trying to fire her or make her so miserable that she’ll quit.
“I’m respectfully asking that the harassment stop,” Wenzel said. “I’m one of the few employees in this county who gets a public performance review every year. That’s called an audit. I have proved over the years that I can do my job as well as anyone can tell by taking a look at our auditor’s reports.”
Numerous letters to the editor have been printed in the Townsend Star supporting Wenzel. Slifka also sides with Wenzel, saying he thinks Obert “has it in for her.”
“If Laura doesn’t have you under her thumb she’s against you,” Slifka said. “Here we are, working on petty stuff with Natalie when there’s a lot of bigger issues out there.”
Obert said she has nothing against Wenzel and believes she does a good job as the county’s finance officer. But according to Obert, 17 other county employees, from every department, have filed 30 complaints about Wenzel in recent years. She said three are serious complaints that involved threats, which is one reason why Wenzel was moved away from others. Any personnel actions, she notes, have been taken after consulting with the county attorney as well as MACo.
“It’s not just a personality conflict with one person,” she said. “It’s interference with other departments, people and their budgets and getting things done. One complaint that’s common is she’ll tell people they can’t have a full-time employee in their department or they can’t have a new employee or they can’t purchase something because it’s not in their budget.”
Wenzel agreed that she might rub some people the wrong way, but said sometimes it’s necessary to be blunt in order to get her job accomplished in a timely fashion. She pointed to the illness by a former treasurer, Rhonda Nelson, as an example of her needing to repeatedly go to another department to find information to reconcile the ledgers.
“I was tracking how many days she was gone and finally started writing it down because I couldn’t quantify it in my head,” Wenzel said, adding that from 2010 through Jan. 27, 2012, Nelson missed 640 hours. “When I find errors in the general ledger — money put in the wrong place or journal entries that are wrong — I have to ask questions from the treasurer’s office and I do that on a regular basis.”
Wenzel said she’s also incredibly stressed by doing not just the finance officer’s job, but also acting as the administrative assistant to the commission and handling former human resource duties. She agreed to the secretarial job a decade ago when first hired and the commissioners only met once a month. Now, she said they meet once a week — sometimes twice — and handling their administrative duties is taking two-thirds of her time.
In January, the commission voted to alleviate Wenzel’s duties as an employee supervisor and department head. Obert said they’ve also removed some of Wenzel’s administrative work to lighten her load. But she adds that perhaps Wenzel also should get a cut in pay since she’s doing less work.
“I do believe that some years ago she was overworked. That’s changed, and change is always hard,” Obert said.
Reporter Eve Byron:
447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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