VERNON — Vernon Mayor Victor Marotta gave $66,000 in “performance awards” to 20 non-contractual township employees in December 2012. Non-contractual generally refers to hires outside the purview of a labor union, in which salary terms are built-in and protected through pre-negotiated contracts.
The payments were made five weeks after the Nov. 6, 2012, defeat of the salary ordinance ballot question – of which 87 percent of Vernon voters opposed. The ordinance would have increased the mayor’s salary from $30,000 to $50,000, the council president’s salary from $3,000 to $6,000, and the council members salaries from $3,000 to $5,000 each. The ordinance also proposed raises for 16 municipal employees at various ranges.
Of the 20 employees who received performace award bonuses on Dec. 11, 2012, 15 were slated to receive raises as part of the defeated salary ordinance. The bonuses awarded range from $2,000 to $5,000. The biggest bonus was paid to business administrator Gerry Giamis. Municipal clerk Susan Nelson received $4,500.
Marotta confirmed the payments in an interview Monday. When asked if an ordinance or resolution is needed to authorize this program, Marotta said, “Absolutely not.”
“Once the budget has been adopted by the council, the expenditure of funds in the budget – as long as they are not outside of the line items that have been laid out – are in the purview of the mayor,” said Marotta.
Marotta said his program is beneficial to the township and residents. “For the year 2012, Vernon Township’s department heads and division heads were able to return to cash surplus $900,000,” said Marotta. “That’s money that was in the budget for 2012 that we did not spend.”
Marotta said that money was given back to residents through tax reductions in 2013, and was used to pay down bond debt and add to the township’s cash surplus.
Councilman Brian Lynch said the program is necessary to award employees on their job performance. “I think that the people in Vernon have benefitted from the hard work of all the employees,” said Lynch. “People need to be rewarded for hard work.”
Program evolution unclear
Marotta said he first made the program known to the public during his mayor’s report at a council meeting in the fall of 2012. A search of meeting minutes from August through December 2012 revealed no mention of the program. When asked to clarify, Marotta wrote in an e-mail that meeting minutes “don’t always capture every detail of our council meetings.”
The Advertiser News North then reviewed videos of the mayor’s reports at every council meeting from August through December 2012 and no mention of the awards program was made. Marotta did not respond to a request for further clarification.
In an interview Tuesday, Marotta said that the performance award program started as an evaluation tool for township managers and was not initially designed as a mechanism to award bonuses.
Marotta initially called the program an “evaluation process, which included a form, and it would be used for determining goals, objectives and remuneration,” he said. “I had no idea whether it was going to be by way of bonus, whether it was going to be by way of raise, the whole issue was still up in the air.”
It is unclear when he decided to make performance awards part of that evaluation process.
Money reserved for salaries and wages part of adopted 2013 budget
The first mention of the program that was found during an investigation by the Advertiser News North was at an April 22, 2013 council meeting, during which Marotta said, “We will continue the employee evaluation program that we began in 2012 for non-contractual employee merit performace bonus payments and we will in fact continue the written performance and objectives set for each of those people and we will move forward in rewarding people for the job that they do.”
Money that could be used in the program is part of the 2013 municipal budget adopted by Vernon on April 8. But Marotta stressed that it will not necessarily be used for the program. The 2013 budget includes money reserved in line items for salaries and wages for the township’s various departments. Marotta said the money could be used for merit bonus pay or for a raise in one of the departments.
“If it’s warranted after the administrative team goes through the evaluation process and sets objectives as we go through 2013, they may very well be paid, they may not be paid,” said Marotta.
Marotta said that he did not receive a bonus and that nobody on the council received bonuses.
Not everyone on council aware of program
Councilman Dan Kadish said he was unaware of the program until the April 22 council meeting and did not know that $66,000 in performance awards had been paid out in December 2012.
“We are not apprised of anything of this,” said Kadish, speaking of the council. “It seems to me that [the performance awards program] is one more way of getting around the ballot question, giving out these bonuses opposing what the voters said.”
Lynch said Marotta made him aware of the program sometime in the fall of 2012, but could not recall whether Marotta mentioned the program in a council meeting or at some other time. Lynch said he was aware that $66,000 in performance payments had been made in December 2012.
“Quite honestly, it had nothing to do with the salary ordinance,” said Lynch. “They were going to be getting a merit bonus whether that salary ordinance went through or not.”
Kadish and Lynch were the only councilmen to respond to a request for comment.
Lynch added that after Marotta informed him of the performance award program, he checked with township attorney Kevin Kelly and “everything was perfectly legal what [Marotta] did, under the statute he’s allowed to do it,“ said Lynch. “It’s a strong mayor form of government. The mayor instituted a bonus award program for the people that have done a great job. He brought in taxes two years in a row lower than they were, and the people that benefitted from the bonus award did a really good job and worked really hard to get this to happen.”
Marotta said there is nothing unusual about the performance award program. “What we did was we put into place business principles that are nothing earth shattering in the private sector,” said Marotta. “We did exactly what I said I would do when I ran, that I will run Vernon Township like a business and that’s what I’m doing.”