Chester County controller Margaret Reif’s mismanagement is creating a host of financial problems that are not only costing taxpayers, but snowballing into other headaches, according to one county commissioner.
Commissioner Michelle Kichline says Chester County’s pension was overdrawn by approximately $1 million at one point under Reif’s management. The commissioner also noted that the IRS hit the county with $22,000 in payroll-tax late fees in late June.
The county is also paying penalties for delayed payments to vendors, has seen nearly 50 percent turnover of controller staff positions, and operated with unreconciled financial books from June until October, she said.
These revelations come on top of public scrutiny Reif faced in July for payroll problems. Initially, numerous county staffers either did not receive their paychecks on time or were underpaid. Soon, overpayments to other employees began to pop up, totaling over $100,000.
Reif said the problems affected about 10 percent of the county’s workforce after the county contracted with Lancaster-based Inova Payroll of Pennsylvania to manage salary disbursements. According to Kichline, Reif presented the idea of switching payroll vendors as a means to “modernize” the county payroll system and asserted it would be “net neutral” in terms of cost.
“I can assure you it has not been ‘net neutral,’” the commissioner said.
According to Kichline, the employees most impacted are those at the county prison, the Pocopson Home long-term care facility, and Chester County Emergency Services. She observed workers at these departments not getting proper overtime pay nor getting hazard pay for working in high-risk environments during the coronavirus pandemic. Others who were overpaid had to work extra, uncompensated hours for months to make up the difference.
“These people rely on this money for their rent, for their mortgages, for the food on their table,” Kichline said. “It’s been really, absolutely disheartening to see what these people are going through. They’re very upset.”
The commissioner said she’s been inundated by messages from county staffers struggling under the circumstances.
Workers who have been with the county for more than two decades wrote a letter discussing the administrative burdens the payroll glitches have caused them. Along with improper compensation, some are having trouble ascertaining how much time off they can take—an increasingly important issue as the holiday season nears.
In the wake of these concerns, both the county’s general payroll manager and the prison payroll manager have resigned.
I can assure you it has not been ‘net neutral,’ the commissioner said.
Kichline and other county sources have also stated that, while each Chester County department is typically allocated $8,000 for legal expenses, Reif’s allotment, per her request, exceeded that standard legal budget by over $10,000 during a six-month period in 2020. They indicated that the solicitor receiving those funds was Tony Verwey, now a Democratic candidate for judge in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas.
Kichline said she finds that arrangement “ironic” insofar as she recalls Democrats criticizing the Republicans who led the county until 2017 for hiring politically connected attorneys. She said she has long called for reviewing the present system that allows such attorneys to profit from the county and then shortly go on to run for county office.
“Profiting at the public expense is not a good thing,” she said.
The county’s contract with Advaite, a Malvern-based biotech company, has also made unsettling headlines. In April of last year, Chester County entered into agreement the agreement to provide the county health department with Covid-19 rapid antibody test kits. After the tests were administered, however, many probable false-positive results were seen.
While the county halted its order of a million kits after reportedly receiving only 102,000 of them, it paid more than $13.2 million of the agreed upon $20 million. One source has said that Advaite actually delivered no more than 79,000 of the kits on schedule and that the county’s purported overpayment to the company is now the subject of litigation in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas.
Reif has clashed with Chester County Commissioners Kichline, Josh Maxwell and Marian Moskowitz) over which of their offices has proper authority to investigate the contract and ensuing payments. But while Reif has contended she should probe this purchase that the commissioners approved, her Republican opponent Regina Mauro has criticized her for disbursing millions of dollars of taxpayer money to Advaite and not questioning the contract from the start.
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Specifically, Mauro has raised doubts about the corporation’s short history (about three years), its modest staff, its unidentified clientele, and its unrelated general focus (on diagnosis and treatment of eye conditions).
“As the county’s fiscal watchdog, the controller is expected to prevent or advise against anything that poses a financial risk or loss, especially in difficult times when funds are most needed,” Mauro said. “While it was not within the controller’s purview to negotiate or enter into this agreement on behalf of the county, as its fiscal watchdog, the controller would have been expected to have a powerful voice making the case against taking on such obvious risk, or at least insisting on specific provisions that would protect the county.”
“I have heard directly from many people who have had problems with the way the controller has run the office,” Mauro said. “Sadly, the first thing some ask me is if I know what I’d be getting into, because it is that bad. It is regrettable that all are in fear of reprisal should they come forward to testify on the condition that the office is in, and all the costly mistakes that have been caused by the controller’s decisions.”
Reif’s office did not return a call for comment.
Bradley Vasoli is president of Hill Media Strategies and a writer at The Star News Network.