County quietly gutted incoming treasurer's pay

Documents show commissioners changed job, salary behind closed doors
By Ethan Andrews | Jan 04, 2019
Photo by: Ethan Andrews

Belfast — An allegation by the incoming Waldo County treasurer that he was targeted with a post-election pay cut may have some merit, an investigation by The Republican Journal has found.

Peter Sheff cried foul in December when he learned that his pay had been cut by 75 percent in the weeks after he was elected. Sheff replaced retiring treasurer David Parkman, who held the post for 15 years. The newcomer said he expected to be paid less but was blindsided by the timing and the size of the pay cut.

In the final budget, approved Nov. 30, the treasurer's pay was reduced to $2,500 from the originally proposed rate of just over $10,000.

Emails obtained by through Maine's Freedom of Access law and other public documents suggest the commissioners only started planning the change immediately after the election and did not discuss it publicly until the night of the final budget vote.

Sheff, who followed the budget process and attended the confirmation meeting, suspected retaliation for his narrow victory over former Waldo County Budget Committee Chairman Bill Sneed, whom the commissioners had endorsed in the election for treasurer.

The commissioners have denied that the pay cut was politically motivated and said they never sought to hide it. They say the change was part of a restructuring of the Treasurer's Department that has been discussed for several years as responsibility for the county's finances has shifted from the part-time, elected treasurer to the full-time appointed deputy treasurer.

As a candidate, Sheff was outspoken in his desire to reduce the small slice of property taxes that goes toward county government. He recently sold his home in Morrill and built a smaller one in Montville to escape skyrocketing property taxes, which he attributed to the cost of schools in the Belfast-based district.

During his campaign, he spoke of rolling back the 5-percent budget increase in the county's 2018 budget and reducing the bottom line by 1 percent in each subsequent year.

Speaking Dec. 6, commissioners said Sheff's lack of experience was a consideration, but the larger factor was the shrinking role of the elected treasurer, and the growing responsibilities of the deputy treasurer.

The final budget adopted on Nov. 30 reflects this shift. While the treasurer's pay was slashed, longtime Deputy Treasurer Karen Trussell was given a new title, "finance director," and a raise that, combined with scheduled increases, boosted her salary by more than $5,000 to $59,976.

Emails from commissioners support their claim that Sheff's lack of experience was a factor but not their claim that the pay cut was in the cards before the election.

The commissioners on Aug. 2, 2018, rejected a suggestion by Parkman to lower the pay of his successor to $7,000, according to minutes from the meeting. Later that month they adopted the departmental request of $10,012 for "new treasurer - starting pay" in their draft budget, which was posted to the county's website.

The topic wasn't mentioned again until two days after the Nov. 6 election, when Trussell emailed the commissioners a list of treasurers' salaries from other Maine counties. The information, she wrote, was requested by Commissioner Amy Fowler. Trussell later told The Republican Journal she believes Fowler made the request on Nov. 7.

Trussell weighed in via email as well, saying the $10,012 in the draft budget was $602 less than Parkman was paid in his final year.

"If Bill Sneed had won the election, I feel as though he should start at this pay," she wrote. "You may want to revisit this at your next meeting. When Dave (Parkman) started in 2003, his salary was $7,000."

Trussell told The Republican Journal she supported higher pay for Sneed because of his familiarity with the county budget.

The report includes treasurer's salaries ranging from $39,057 in Hancock County to $5,200 in Somerset County. Waldo County's pay — the $10,615 that Parkman was paid in 2018 — was noted as being 27.9 percent below the mean average.

Two hours later on Nov. 8, Commissioner Betty Johnson replied to the group email stating a preference for salaries at the lowest end of the scale with no benefits. She also broached the idea of promoting the deputy treasurer.

“I want the treasurer to be just a(n) adviser to the commissioners and no power,” Johnson wrote. "We make Karen (Trussell) a finance director."

Fowler replied to the group that she agreed and would be recommending a "much lower starting salary for a new treasurer."

A week later, the commissioners voted, after an executive session, to change Trussell's title and pay and notify Budget Committee members, who were scheduled to cast a final vote at the end of the month.

The commissioners also approved a new job description for the treasurer, though detailed minutes from the meeting show no discussion or vote on the job description or the pay cut. The revised job description, dated Nov. 15, relieves the treasurer of a long list of financial responsibilities and puts the elected officer in the role of overseer and adviser to the deputy treasurer rather than supervisor.

Speaking on Jan. 3, Commissioner William Shorey said the cut may have been discussed in executive session. He said the reduced salary was based solely on the restructuring of the department, which left the treasurer with little more than rubber stamp authority, as it should be.

"When you can run for a job and the entity is a $9 million deal, and you don't have to have one ounce of financial (experience), there's something wrong in America," he said. "We've been talking about the treasurer's salary for five years. It isn't something we dreamed up one weekend."

Asked for documentation to support that claim, Shorey declined, saying he rejected the premise of The Journal's story and that he did not wish to comment further.

The Budget Committee adopted the commissioners' changes in the final budget on Nov. 30. Several committee members interviewed by The Republican Journal said the commissioners explained the changes to the Treasurer's Department before the vote and that there was little, if any, discussion within the committee. One member said he was surprised but noted that the committee does not have the authority to change salaries.

Sheff attended that final meeting and recalled hearing Fowler ask the committee to consider the revisions but said the amounts were not discussed. The change happened after the public comment period, Sheff noted. He didn't inquire after it because, as a new treasurer, he expected he would be paid 20 percent to 30 percent less than his predecessor.

"Which would have been all right with me," he said. "I'm the first one to admit I'm a novice."

On Dec. 5, five days after the final budget vote, Trussell emailed the commissioners to say she had a phone message from Sheff, who wanted to meet and go over his new responsibilities.

"Am I the one who is going to inform him that his job description and pay has changed, or are you going to let him know?" she wrote.

Johnson advised Trussell against doing anything.

"I don't think it's up to you to point out the changes," she wrote. "His job description is there and if he has concerns about it he needs to meet with the commissioners. Anything about his salary, benefits he discusses with us. He isn't your boss and neither are we. His job is spelled out in statutes, county description and pay."

Sheff told The Republican Journal he didn't run for treasurer because of the money but said he was perplexed by the commissioners' decision to cut his salary after he had been elected to the job. He wondered, rhetorically, if the same thing would ever happen to a governor or sheriff.

"It makes no sense at all to me," he said.

Sheff said he doesn't plan to hold a grudge. Though it came at his own expense, he said, the pay decrease is money that won't have to be raised from property taxes.

"If I'm going to be a start to reducing the taxes, let it be so," he said. "Next year maybe the commissioners can cut their own pay by 75 percent."

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