BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Erie County government spent nearly $6 million in federal COVID-19 funds on overtime pay and expenses, according to a final report released Friday morning by Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw.
According to the report, from March 1, 2020 to the pay period ending on January 1, 2021, the county charged 114,524 hours to overtime and holiday pay at a cost of $5,898,195 using CARES Act funding.
Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein, a politically appointed salaried employee, received the highest amount of overtime pay at $183,000, according to the report. When you factor in her annual salary of $202,000, Burstein was paid $385,000 by the county in 2020.
“If you are a salaried political employee, you should not get overtime. And taxpayers most definitely should not pay for your meals. But that's what happened,” comptroller Stefan Mychajliw said in a recorded statement released by his office. "The Poloncarz administration spent $240,000 on pizza, wings, even raw pork chops. Why? Because they think you the taxpayers are suckers."
The report also states the Poloncarz administration spent $239,689 of COVID funds on food expenses in 2020. The comptroller's office says while the CARES Act legislation does allow for funds to be used for proper food expenses, it does not mention if it allows food expenses for employees. Mychajliw says the county's data processing system did not provide enough documentation to determine if the food charges were appropriate and legal under the CARES Act legislation.
The comptroller says the Erie County Legislature scheduled and postponed a committee hearing on COVID-related overtime, holiday pay and food expenditures in 2020 and it was never put back on the calendar.
“The Poloncarz Administration abused a health care crisis to line the pockets of political appointees and pad their pensions. The politically connected were well fed, literally and figuratively. The overtime and food bill for the politically connected was shoved down the throats of taxpayers. This abuse of tax dollars warrants further scrutiny,” Mychajliw said.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz released the following statement for 7 Eyewitness News:
Dr. Burstein is performing two full-time jobs at this point: running the day-to-day operations of the Health Department, which are vast, and leading our community’s efforts responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic, which includes coordinating with our many partners to slow the spread of the virus and plan and implement delivery of the vaccine. To complete her tasks she works many hours during the day and even during the overnight hours. As evidence of that, this morning when I woke up, I received e-mail messages from her sent last night at 11:21 pm, 12:20 am, 1:00 am, 1:14 am and 3:52 am on topics related to the Pandemic and the Opioid Crisis. This is normal for her during the Pandemic.
It is disappointing that in a time of pandemic the comptroller chooses to focus his energy on attacking the Health Commissioner in charge of leading Erie County’s response to COVID-19. While the rest of the county is unified and concentrating on battling the coronavirus, he continues to politicize and undermine public health. As he should know, all COVID-19 related overtime earned by county employees is authorized by the U.S. Treasury as an appropriate use of CRF funding.
Furthermore, to clear up another misperception that he likes to push, none of the employees in his ‘report’ are salaried employees but are all hourly workers. The only salaried employees in Erie County government are its elected officials; we get paid the same whether we work 80+ hours in a week, as I have done during the Pandemic, or 10 or less, as it appears others have done. All other employees are paid based on the hours they work.
According to a report from the comptroller's office in September, Erie County paid a total of $942,664 in overtime to managerial confidential employees at the time, compared to a combined total of $45,515 from the counties who responded to the office's inquiries. You can find more the September report here.
You can find the full final report from the comptroller's office here.