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Published: Monday, 3/1/2010

Unease brews over Monroe County leader's salary

BY MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

MONROE - William Braunlich, president of the board of the Monroe County Historical Society, is paid $120,000 a year from the society - more than the salary of the county administrator, the Monroe city manager, or the executive director of the Monroe United Way.

And, records show, Mr. Braunlich's Monroe law firm is paid an additional $60,000 a year from the society.

Jean Guyor, a longtime historical society director, treasurer, and immediate past president, said the decision to pay Mr. Braunlich and his law office was reached after researching salaries of administrators of similar charitable organizations. "We are not paying him as a president. We are paying him as an attorney. We are paying him as a fund-raiser. We are paying him as an executive director, but not as president," she said.

The 70-year-old organization exists to preserve Monroe County's historical assets.

A review of historical society financial records and information obtained through interviews show he is paid $10,000 a month from the society. Records also show society assets were nearly $500,000 less in 2008 than in 2007.

In comparison to Mr. Braunlich's salary, Royce Maniko, Monroe County administrator and chief financial officer, makes $105,000 a year to oversee a $44 million annual budget and more than 475 employees in more than 30 dozen departments and offices.

The executive director of the

United Way of Monroe County, Connie Carroll, last year received less than $50,000.

She and her staff of three provide more than $1 million in financial and management support for programs and services of 25 partner agencies.

And George Brown, Monroe's city manager, is paid $98,000 a year to oversee the city's $30 million annual budget and its 180 employees.

Jerry Oley, county commissioner, said the historical society's decision to pay Mr. Braunlich for services and keep him on the board of directors is a slippery slope.

"What he is offering to the board for his work may be very valuable. Perhaps he should avoid the appearance of having a conflict of interest by stepping down and charging the society for the work he is doing," Mr. Oley said.

Gregory Heldt, director of charity investigation at the Better Business Bureau, said of Mr. Braunlich's salary package, "What they are doing may not be ethical. However, there is nothing illegal with what they are doing."

Mr. Heldt's watchdog group serves northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

Mr. Heldt said that although Mr. Braunlich's salary would not give reason for the organization to lose its charitable status, the society's board should be careful about paying employees at his law firm.

"I would be more concerned about giving this $60,000 a year to his law firm," he said.

The Monroe County Historical Society began more than 70 years ago when community leaders realized they needed an organization to preserve and promote local history.

First organized in 1938, the nonprofit organization's founding members included newspaper editor and publisher JS Gray; Joseph Navarre, who was the grandson of Monroe's first white settler, Francois Navarre; and businessman William Sterling.

They wanted a nongovernmental organization that could accept donations and historical artifacts because state law wouldn't allow the county to receive those items from the community.

The historical society became the clearing house for people to donate collectibles that could be displayed in the county museum and to donate money to operate it.

Through the years, the society has been supported by donors including the Knabusch and Shoemaker families, founders of furniture maker La-Z-Boy Inc., as well as $200 lifetime and $10 annual membership fees.

Some contributions were given to the historical society with stipulations that the funds be spent on the museum, a county-owned institution that has fallen on hard financial times.

The historical society's 2008 federal tax filings, the most recent available, show that the society's board of directors voted in 2007 to begin paying $10,000 monthly to Mr. Braunlich.

Also, the nonprofit group's directors authorized paying about $325,000 in society money to board member Roger Homrich, an area businessman, as payment for a building he owned on North Elm Avenue near the future River Raisin Battlefield National Park, the organization's 2006 federal filings show.

The nonprofit organization's assets, including donations coupled with interest earned on investments on the funds, were more than $2.4 million at the end of 2007 when the society began paying the salaries.

Records show the society's endowments fell to $1.9 million by the end of 2008.

Mr. Braunlich, 55, told The Blade that the historical society board agreed to his salary package to spearhead local efforts to get the historic battlefield property elevated into a national park and to handle other society-related projects.

He said he and the society board agreed to a "professional services contract" that was below the $175 to $200 hourly rate he normally charges for legal services. He added that if he had billed at his regular rate, the costs would have exceeded $300,000.

"One of the endeavors the board did was to enter into an agreement with me in which I was going to provide a broad spectrum of professional services, with the battlefield being the primary goal," he said.

Mrs. Guyor said Mr. Braunlich's professional services contract with the society was extended last month.

She said the board, in a 12-0 vote, approved continuing the compensation for him and his law firm staff on a month-to-month basis.

"The arrangement will continue as long as it is mutually convenient for the members of the board and Mr. Braunlich," she said.

At the time the contract was signed, Mr. Braunlich maintained that he was working but was not being paid for society-related activities, including negotiating leases with tenants of the society-owned Johnson-Phinney House and reviewing documents for the society. He said the value of his unpaid work exceeds $200,000.

"I am basically doing this for about 35 percent of what I would be doing at hourly rate. I went as far as I could on a volunteer basis. I wish I was independently wealthy and could offer my services for free," he said. "I couldn't continue giving services for free."

He said the agreement with the society called for him not to take on any new legal work in his practice, but he was allowed to serve existing clients. "I have not taken on any new work of any significance," he said.

Mr. Braunlich also defended the more than $5,000 a month paid to his law firm for society-related business.

While nearly $700,000 in society money has been paid to its board members and Mr. Braunlich's law firm, the county museum, which was the reason the society exists, is facing a financial crunch.

In a cost-cutting move to offset a projected $7 million deficit, the county Board of Commissioners last year slashed nearly $90,000 from the museum's annual budget.

The budgetary moves resulted in the museum losing its assistant director and visitors being charged admission, a first for the museum.

In addition to the downtown museum building, which houses the most extensive collection of George Armstrong Custer artifacts in the world, the museum operates the Navarre-Anderson Trading Post complex on North Custer Road and the River Raisin Battlefield Visitor Center on East Elm Avenue that will be donated to the Interior Department for the national park.

Historical society financial information shows the nonprofit group spent more than $91,000 last year for the River Raisin Battlefield endeavor and paid an additional $35,000 for repairs and other work at the Johnson-Phinney House.

In comparison, the society put less than $900 into the county museum last year, the records show.

Mr. Braunlich insisted the society doesn't want the museum to fail, and he believes that a plan the organization is developing will keep it going if the county eliminates funding.

"We are vitally interested in the success of the museum," he said. "We really care about it."

Mr. Braunlich of Lasalle Township has been a director on the society board for 15 years and president the past four years.

After graduating from law school at Washington and Lee University in Virginia in 1979, he joined his late father's Monroe law firm.

Monroe County Community College and the Monroe County Road Commission were among the firm's clients when he began practicing law.

He resigned as the community college's legal counsel in 2001 and was elected the next year to the community college's Board of Trustees.

Gerald Welch, retired president of the college, David Nixon, the school's current president, and Michael Meyer, a community college trustee, are on the historical society's Board of Directors.

Mr. Nixon said he supported paying Mr. Braunlich because of legal and environmental issues related to the acquisition of battlefield land for the national park and fund-raising to acquire additional land.

"The society board felt that this was the time that we should be able to move on and bring this all together," he said.

"The problem is that nobody has any money. The federal government doesn't have any money. Likely there will be a private campaign to complete all that."

Contact Mark Reiter at:

markreiter@theblade.com

or 419-724-6199.



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