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Controller Candidates Debate: How Much is Too Much for Delco Consultants?

A county controller’s job is to make sure local government accounts for every penny of taxpayer money it spends. And over the past 18 months, a lot of those pennies in Delaware County have been going to outside contractors to do work that critics say should be done by the employees already on the county clock.

So, how much is too much for Delco to spend on outside consultants?

The question goes back to the county council’s decision in August to hire Marianne Jackson to serve as Interim Director of Elections for $20,000 per month, part of a $2 million spending package on the 2020 election some saw as wasteful and excessive.

“Twenty thousand dollars a month, $20,000 a month for an employee,” Republican James J. Byrne, Jr. said at the time. “I defy you to find any other county employee that’s being paid $20,000 a month.”

Since then, the county council approved paying consultant Christina Perrone $100,000 for five months of work related to the May primary election. Her contract also included reviewing the medical examiner facilities and operations, the establishment of the new county health department, and other initiatives. It had previously paid her $50,000 to coordinate moving the Election Bureau and the Voter Registration Department from the Government Center in Media to the Wharf at Rivertown in Chester.

Perrone isn’t the only person getting paid on contracts related to the creation of the county’s new stand-alone health department. In May 2020, the council hired Gorenflo Consulting Inc. for up to $44,978 to create a strategic plan for launching the health department.

Over the summer, the council added consultant Cebele Rodriguez for up to $125,000 for project management services to integrate staff and facility needs. That included developing and designing contracts related to the launch of the county health department and the redevelopment of the county medical examiner’s office, while also providing support regarding the scanning of mail for contraband at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility.

And then there’s money to contractors hired to get county government more money.

In June, the council approved the $95,000 seven-month hiring of law firm Holland & Knight to lobby the federal government on the county’s behalf. That came one year after hiring the Witt O’Brien firm to maximize federal and state grant reimbursements related to costs associated with COVID-19. Officials expect Witt O’Brien’s $150,000 fee to be reimbursed by such grants.

Delaware County Controller Joanne Phillips, seeking a second term in this November’s election, has previously expressed her concerns regarding spending on consultants, especially the optics it sends to county employees. However, Phillips told DVJournal this week the county’s use of project managers and outside advisors is “appropriate in certain circumstances.”

“Given the initiatives council wanted to move forward on in 2020, the issues inherited by county council when they began in 2020 and then the almost immediate onset of the pandemic, outside help and project managers were needed,” Phillips says. “These arrangements are best used when the scope of a project is limited or there is a need for special expertise. Typically, that has been the case.”

Phillips cited building the new health department, handling vaccination efforts, managing the emergency rental assistance program, and bringing the prison back to county control as examples of properly utilizing outside help. (The council approved hiring CGL Companies for $385,000 to oversee the prison’s transition.)

“I do feel strongly that when the job entails a critical county function, a county employee should handle the job,” Phillips said. “I’ve been a strong proponent for limiting the use of consultants to address needed permanent management positions. However, owing a great deal to the pandemic, the labor market has been very tight and there are jobs that are needed only for a short time, so use of temporary staff has helped address those situations.”

Sherry Smyth, Phillips’ Republican challenger in the controller race, doesn’t agree.

“I don’t understand why there aren’t any qualified people in Delaware County to take these jobs,” Smyth says. “If elected, I will do audits and review policies and procedures to determine the duration of these contracts.”

Smyth, a certified public accountant, has served as a Newtown Township supervisor and elected auditor. She’s also vice-chair of the Newtown Square Business Association and serves on the board of Family Support Line. At the end of March, she retired after 16 years as CEO of Dunwoody Village.

The Delco Republican Party has repeatedly criticized the Democrat-controlled county government for passing over local workers and hiring consultants instead. In March, Delaware County GOP Committee Chair Tom McGarrigle complained about the hiring of James Allen as Delaware County’s Election Services Director. Allen, who previously spent 14 years as director of communications and strategic planning for the Chicago Board of Elections, was brought in for an agreed-upon salary cap of $145,000 plus benefits.

When the county hired Jackson for the elections job, McGarrigle told DV Journal: “We have 560,000 people living in Delaware County. Why not select someone from here?”

The controller serves as a fiscal watchdog, tasked with overseeing the expenditures of county funds. The office handles the county’s payroll, internal audits, retirement, accounts payable, and the accounting system. Phillips came to the role as a partner in the law firm of Ballard Spahr LLP. She also served as director of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Real Estate in the department of general services, where she oversaw leased facilities and property.

“With careful recruiting and good hiring practices, the county will be able to hire qualified people and we can build the county workforce to the right size with county residents in those jobs,” Phillips says.

Pennsylvania’s general election takes place Nov. 2.