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Published: 2/11/2009

Verbal sparring on travel costs punctuates board meeting

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Gerken Gerken
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo

The Lucas County commissioners agreed to raise the baseline of a living wage proposal but put off voting on it yesterday at a meeting punctuated by verbal sparring over employee travel expenses and Commissioner Ben Konop's mayoral ambitions.

Commissioner Pete Gerken rec-

ommended in-

creasing the threshold of the living wage resolution to $11.67 an hour from an $8.38 hourly minimum in Mr. Konop's initial proposal last month.

The resolution would become a contract stipulation for for-profit employers doing business with or receiving tax abatements from the county; it would not apply across the board to county businesses.

Businesses with fewer than 50 employees would be exempt.

With Mr. Gerken's adjustments, the county's policy would in effect mirror Toledo's living-wage law that's pegged at 110 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four. Jobs without medical benefits are tied to 130 percent of poverty level, or currently $13.79 an hour. Ohio's minimum wage is $7.30 an hour.

Although all three commissioners appeared to be in agreement, they postponed a vote to wait for analysis from Assistant County Prosecutor John Borell on their authority to enact such a measure.

Mr. Gerken was the lead proponent for the city's living-wage law during his years on City Council. The law was adopted in 2000. He said Mr. Konop's hourly figure, which is tied to a formula developed by a professor at Pennsylvania State University, is too low and should match the city's rate.

"If we need a living wage, let's do a living wage," Mr. Gerken said. "If we pass this ordinance at $8.38 an hour we do a disservice to the work that was done previously."

The proposal has drawn criticism from Mark V'Soske, president of the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce. In a letter to Mr. Konop he said the wage requirement would impede efforts to attract and expand businesses and "ultimately hurt the people you are trying to help."

The commissioners showed less accord on a resolution to pay employee travel expenses.

Mr. Konop balked at three travel requests, most vehemently at one from the county's Workforce Development Agency to send its manager, Michael Veh, to Minneapolis for four days this spring for a National Association of Workforce Development Professionals conference.

Mr. Konop called the trip "an egregious request" in the current recessionary climate that shouldn't be allowed under a county resolution passed last year that prohibits "nonessential taxpayer-funded travel."

For dramatic effect he read aloud each anticipated expense of the total $1,665: $220 a night at the Hilton Minneapolis, $300 for an airline ticket, dinners at $32 each, $150 for taxi and parking expenses.

In his agency's defense, Director Eric Walker told the commissioners that his staff skipped last year's conference to save money and needs to attend this year's conference for networking opportunities that, among other benefits, could ultimately help the county snag additional funding under a federal stimulus package.

Mr. Gerken said the conference qualifies as essential and that canceling it would be "penny wise and pound foolish."

"It's egregious if we don't do it," he said.

The panel ultimately postponed a vote for a week while Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak contacts the Ohio governor's office to inquire about its conference travel policies.

But Mr. Konop was not done.

Several minutes after they set the matter aside, he announced how a "quick Internet search" on his laptop had just turned up cheaper overnight accommodations in Minneapolis: "$68 at the University Inn, $70 at the Super 8."

Mr. Gerken seemed unimpressed by the speedy Web surfing. "We're gonna have this [discussion] next week," he said.

"I just wanted to get that out there," Mr. Konop replied.

At another moment, Mr. Gerken thrust into the spotlight Mr. Konop's exploratory campaign for the Toledo mayoral race.

"I think it's egregious when you take county staff out of this building to mayoral events on county time," said Mr. Gerken, referring to how a workforce development employee accompanied the commissioner during his "Konop Talking With Toledo" rounds on Jan. 27.

"A picture of you in the paper at a mayoral campaign event with county staff on county pay," Mr. Gerken continued. "That's egregious, if not illegal."

Although Mr. Konop let the matter drop, he defended himself after the meeting.

"I haven't even officially declared for anything," he said.

"And there's a dual purpose when I'm going out: Obviously I was going out to judge public sentiment for my campaign, and I'm also going out to explain what services the county has to offer to help people."

So the employee in question was "doing exactly what she should be doing as a workforce development employee," Mr. Konop said.

"I wouldn't be doing my job if I wouldn't meet with these people and didn't offer the services of the county."

Mr. Gerken also said after the meeting that he may refer the matter to the Ohio Ethics Commission.

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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