Officials in Michigan County Used Virus Money for Bonuses

Several of the commissioners said they didn't know they were voting to give themselves bonuses and planned to return the money or donate it to charity

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Elected officials in a Michigan county gave themselves $65,000 in bonuses with federal relief money related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The money, described as “hazard pay,” included $25,000 for Jeremy Root, chairman of the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners.

The mostly rural county, between Lansing and Flint, has a population of 68,000.

Commissioners — all Republicans — last week voted to award more than $500,000 to dozens of county employees. It ranged from $25,000 for administrators to $2,000 for cleaning staff. All recipients got at least $1,000.

Besides Root, commissioners John Plowman and Brandon Marks each received $10,000, and the other four commissioners got $5,000 each.

Most commissioners are paid $10,000 a year for their part-time job, plus a stipend for meetings.

“I think that I earned it," Commissioner Cindy Garber said of the bonus. “I work really hard at this job. I was here in-person all through this crazy year.”

Commissioner Marlene Webster said she was “mortified” when money appeared in her bank account and didn't know she had voted to reward herself.

“I’m giving the money back,” Webster told WILX-TV. “I think one commissioner is giving it to a nonprofit so those actions indicate that we truly did not know this money was coming to us.”

A message seeking comment from Root wasn't immediately returned Thursday.

Meanwhile, Nichole Ruggiero of Owosso filed a lawsuit to try to rescind some bonuses, claiming commissioners violated Michigan's open meetings law when they went into closed session to discuss the money, The Argus-Press reported.

“The arrogance of this board is outlandish,” Ruggiero said.

The hazard pay was extended to other elected county officials, including Sheriff Brian BeGole, who got $25,000, and prosecutor Scott Koerner, who received $12,500.

The county administrator, Brian Boggs, who received $25,000, said the focus on commissioners was overshadowing an effort to assist county workers.

“It was to the benefit of the employees," he said of the bonuses, "and perhaps we should not pursue other ideas like this to get them additional funding if this is how it’s going to be received.”

Garber said the large payment for Root was justified because he “bears the burden of all emergency orders.”

Stephan Currie, executive director of the Michigan Association of Counties, or MAC, said the group works closely with counties about how to spend federal virus-related cash.

“We are not aware of any other counties considering payments to elected officials, and MAC has not provided any guidance or advice to do so. ... Decisions, however, ultimately rest with the county’s board of commissioners in each county,” Currie told MLive.com.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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