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Erie County comptroller report questions some COVID-19 overtime expenses

Posted at 4:39 PM, Jul 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-28 20:08:17-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — “Just because they can make OT, doesn’t mean that they should,” said Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw during his new conference concerning a report filed by his office detailing recent COVID-19 related overtime countywide.

Read the full 41-page report here.

The only departments that didn't claim any COVID-19 related overtime were the comptroller's office, and the district attorney's office.

He said the Erie County executive and the sheriff’s office are two offices raising red flags.

“The Poloncarz Administration abused federal dollars by allowing highly paid political appointees to boost overtime and publicly pad their pensions,” Mychajliw claimed.

The report highlights county employee, Michael Szukala. He makes a little more than $120,000 a year as the Erie County Medicaid Inspector General. According to Mychajliw, Szukala collected more than $4,000 in overtime to be a contact tracer and answer the phones for the county’s COVID-19 information hotline.

Poloncarz said he hadn’t seen the report as of Tuesday afternoon. But, he’s defending Szukala’s work. He said he wouldn’t have been paid if he went home. He also volunteered to work on Good Friday and Easter when no one else would.

“Michael Szukala has a salary. But he doesn’t just get paid that. He only gets paid for the hours he worked,” he said.

Szukala didn't respond to our request for comment.

Mychajliw is also critical of the sheriff’s office led by fellow republican Timothy Howard. According to the report, the sheriff’s office billed taxpayers nearly $1.5 million in overtime pay related to COVID-19. Those costs included the sheriff’s office paying overtime to deliver for “Meals on Wheels” during the pandemic. That is work normally done by volunteers.

“The question remains was some of this OT related to riots? Or, was it related to COVID?” Mychjaliw asked.

We requested an on-camera interview with Erie Co. Sheriff Timothy Howard to explain the overtime expense. That request was denied. Instead, a spokesman released a statement saying under the legislation and office of budget, the expense is allowed under the CARES Act.

Ultimately, the Erie County Legislature will decide whether the spending was appropriate. But, that decision will have to wait. A committee meeting scheduled for Thursday has been put on hold. According to Erie County Legislative Chairwoman Aril Baskin, no one from the sheriff’s office will be available to answer questions.

“Due to the willful inability of multiple Sheriff’s Office administrators to participate and answer questions regarding the $440,000 in overtime approved for 13 high salary management employees, I have been left with no option but to postpone the July 30th meeting of the Legislature’s Finance and Management Committee. According to the Comptroller’s report, the Office of the Sheriff received over 60% of all COVID-related overtime wages, more than any other County department by far during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Baskin said in a statement.

“I have serious concerns about the management of the Sheriff’s Office, considering that they are the only County office that received overtime pay without an employee swipe-in/swipe-out time keeping system. Considering that due to recent State criminal justice reforms, the inmate headcount of the County jail system is only around 500 when the facilities can house over 1,500 prisoners, it is imperative that the high salaried political appointees of the Sheriff’s Office come forward and justify their earnings of nearly a half-million dollars in overtime from federal funding. These funds were intended to help the residents of Erie County survive a dangerous pandemic and the public deserves answers,” she added.