Two of the three Lucas County commissioners want to end the days of full-ride college scholarships at the county Auditor's Office, but Auditor Larry Kaczala says he'll find a way to keep paying his employees' tuition.
Reacting to a story in The Blade last week that Mr. Kaczala has paid more than $24,000 since the beginning of 2002 to cover the tuition costs for eight of his employees, Commissioners Harry Barlos and Tina Skeldon Wozniak said they want to stop the practice.
“The first issue is to dispel the fantasy that the county has a full scholarship program,” Mr. Barlos said.
But Mr. Kaczala responded defiantly to news the commissioners are considering trying to attach strings to how he spends his budget, saying even if the commissioners cut his funds he'll still pay the tuition for his employees.
“They can't control how I spend my budget. They can only set my budget,” Mr. Kaczala said. “That would be a little beyond the control of the county commissioners.”
He said it would be “penny-wise and pound-foolish” to try to stop him from paying his employees' tuition. The tuition reimbursement plan is part of the contract with his union employees, but he also pays for people on his management team.
Almost one-third of the tuition reimbursement has gone to Keith Fournier, head of information services, who is working on a master's degree in business administration at Heidelberg College. So far, Mr. Kaczala has paid $7,425 for Mr. Fournier's studies, and he anticipates paying an additional $1,200 for this fall's tuition.
Mr. Fournier's reimbursement came from the travel and training fund for data processing, while Mr. Kaczala said most of the other payments are coming from his payroll budget.
Mr. Barlos said he thinks Mr. Fournier, who is heading a systemwide software change for the county, is a valuable employee, but he doesn't believe taxpayers should be paying the cost for his MBA. The commissioners may withhold the travel and training funds for all elected officials so that all general fund expenses would have to be cleared through the board, Mr. Barlos said.
At the very least, he said a “precisely written memo” will be crafted about the appropriate use of travel and training dollars.
Ms. Wozniak said at a meeting last week that the county can't pay the full tuition for employees.
“I do not believe that was ever the intent, to provide full reimbursement of higher education,” she said. “I don't believe that's our role.”
She later took a more diplomatic tack, saying that she hoped elected officials would look at tuition plans and agree to a more uniform policy.
The commissioners' plan, for instance, allows employees to seek reimbursement for $500 per semester, up to a maximum of $2,000 a year. In addition to getting public money for tuition from Mr. Kaczala, the eight auditor's office employees also received $9,200 from the commissioners' countywide program.
The commissioners have halted their plan because the latest prediction from its budget office is that the county will have a $4.1 million deficit by the end of the year.
Commissioner Maggie Thurber said at a meeting last week the “public clearly understands this is an inappropriate expenditure of public money.” Later in the week, though, she said she has no jurisdiction over how another elected official spends his budget. She said officials should be able to justify to the public and the commissioners how they spend their allocated money.
Trying to stop him from reimbursing employees for their tuition costs would be a “knee-jerk reaction” on the part of the commissioners, Mr. Kaczala said.
“You're cutting the training of our employees right at the moment in history that they need training,” he said.
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