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Competition Heats Up for Bucks County Controller, the Fiscal Watchdog

As election day quickly approaches, Bucks County voters must decide between incumbent Neale Dougherty (D) or attorney Pamela A. Van Blunk (R) for Bucks County Controller.

Prior to his term as controller, Dougherty worked in financial services and commercial insurance at Federated for 15 years. He got involved with local politics, becoming a  member of the New Hope-Solebury School Board and later, school board president. While on the board, he also chaired the finance and facilities committee.

Dougherty said his experience in finance has been “essential” to the position. “Having a background in finance is critical to this job. My experience for the last four years has really helped me,” he told the Delaware Valley Journal.

Bucks County Controller Neale Dougherty (D)

Meanwhile, Van Blunk, of Van Blunk Law, LLC, says she believes the controller needs a legal background, citing how, traditionally, the controller’s position in Bucks County has been held by an attorney since the job involves much legal interpretation.

“The controller scrutinizes, audits, and decides on all bills, claims, and demands against the county to verify that the claim is legally due and that the supplies or services for which payment is claimed have been furnished or performed under legal authority,” she said. “If the controller has concerns about a claim or invoice made to the county, the controller has the authority to investigate by issuing subpoenas, taking testimony under oath, and gathering evidence. If, after an investigation, the controller still has concerns, they have the authority to refuse approving the claim for payment. If the commissioners still want to pay the claim, they will need to go to court, present evidence, and have the court determine whether the claim must be paid.”

Audits have been an integral part of Dougherty’s work.

“The uptick in audits is important for taxpayers,” he said. “It has been a big improvement since I arrived. We audit the other row offices. We continue to audit the tax collectors and district courts. However, the increase of audits of row offices has been a real service to taxpayers,” he said. “We provide guidance to the commissioners on how to properly spend funds and we’ve done all that while meeting our daily responsibilities of accounts payable, payroll, paying the constables, the retirement checks, and looking after the retirement fund.”

Pamela A. Van Blunk (R)

If Van Blunk wins, she says she would be most excited to have “the ability to put my background and skills to use for the people of Bucks County. I believe in government transparency and holding our government officials accountable to the taxpayers because our taxpayers deserve to know where their tax dollars are being spent.”

Van Blunk’s background includes “extensive experience reviewing and interpreting laws, rules and regulations, reviewing financial reports, working with accountants, investigating misspending and fraud, gathering and presenting evidence, having subpoenas issued, taking testimony and going to court and trial.”

“Because of my legal background, I can hit the ground running on day one in office,” she said.

The election for controller carries more weight this year since whoever wins the office will have to oversee the commissioners’ use of $61 million in American Rescue Plan funds from this year alone, in addition to another $61 million the county will receive next year.

A draft of the budget has already been prepared by the commissioners, according to Dougherty.

“We’ll provide guidance on how to allocate it. It is not dedicated at this time, but we do know it will include grants for small businesses in Bucks Country,” he said.

On the topic of the American Rescue Plan Funds, Van Blunk said, “I intend to audit each and every dollar of COVID-related money that is coming into Bucks County to make sure that it is spent legally. I also believe that our taxpayers deserve to know where it is being spent and whether it is going to those who most need it.”

Ahead of election day, Dougherty said he would like voters to know that what he is most proud of, after serving for four years as controller, is that the office “is probably the least partisan of all the offices. And I have been fair and productive as the officeholder. I think folks should know about that.”

“I moved to Bucks County 28 years ago to raise my family in a safe community surrounded by great neighbors. Now that my family is grown, I want to give back to Bucks County to help ensure that it stays the wonderful place we are all so proud to call our home,” Van Blunk said about her message to voters.

Election Day is next Tuesday, November 2. Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

VASOLI: Chester County Facing Major Fiscal Problems Thanks to Controller Reif

Chester County controller Margaret Reif’s mismanagement is creating a host of financial problems that are not only costing taxpayers, but snowballing into other headaches, according to one county commissioner.

Commissioner Michelle Kichline says Chester County’s pension was overdrawn by approximately $1 million at one point under Reif’s management. The commissioner also noted that the IRS hit the county with $22,000 in payroll-tax late fees in late June.

The county is also paying penalties for delayed payments to vendors, has seen nearly 50 percent turnover of controller staff positions, and operated with unreconciled financial books from June until October, she said.

These revelations come on top of public scrutiny Reif faced in July for payroll problems. Initially, numerous county staffers either did not receive their paychecks on time or were underpaid. Soon, overpayments to other employees began to pop up, totaling over $100,000.

Reif said the problems affected about 10 percent of the county’s workforce after the county contracted with Lancaster-based Inova Payroll of Pennsylvania to manage salary disbursements. According to Kichline, Reif presented the idea of switching payroll vendors as a means to “modernize” the county payroll system and asserted it would be “net neutral” in terms of cost.

“I can assure you it has not been ‘net neutral,’” the commissioner said.

According to Kichline, the employees most impacted are those at the county prison, the Pocopson Home long-term care facility, and Chester County Emergency Services. She observed workers at these departments not getting proper overtime pay nor getting hazard pay for working in high-risk environments during the coronavirus pandemic. Others who were overpaid had to work extra, uncompensated hours for months to make up the difference.

“These people rely on this money for their rent, for their mortgages, for the food on their table,” Kichline said. “It’s been really, absolutely disheartening to see what these people are going through. They’re very upset.”

The commissioner said she’s been inundated by messages from county staffers struggling under the circumstances.

Workers who have been with the county for more than two decades wrote a letter discussing the administrative burdens the payroll glitches have caused them. Along with improper compensation, some are having trouble ascertaining how much time off they can take—an increasingly important issue as the holiday season nears.

In the wake of these concerns, both the county’s general payroll manager and the prison payroll manager have resigned.

Kichline and other county sources have also stated that, while each Chester County department is typically allocated $8,000 for legal expenses, Reif’s allotment, per her request, exceeded that standard legal budget by over $10,000 during a six-month period in 2020. They indicated that the solicitor receiving those funds was Tony Verwey, now a Democratic candidate for judge in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas.

Kichline said she finds that arrangement “ironic” insofar as she recalls Democrats criticizing the Republicans who led the county until 2017 for hiring politically connected attorneys. She said she has long called for reviewing the present system that allows such attorneys to profit from the county and then shortly go on to run for county office.

“Profiting at the public expense is not a good thing,” she said.

The county’s contract with Advaite, a Malvern-based biotech company, has also made unsettling headlines. In April of last year, Chester County entered into  agreement  the agreement to provide the county health department with COVID-19 rapid antibody test kits. After the tests were administered, however, many probable false-positive results were seen.

While the county halted its order of a million kits after reportedly receiving only 102,000 of them, it paid more than $13.2 million of the agreed upon $20 million. One source has said that Advaite actually delivered no more than 79,000 of the kits on schedule and that the county’s purported overpayment to the company is now the subject of litigation in the Chester County Court of Common Pleas.

Reif has clashed with Chester County Commissioners Kichline, Josh Maxwell and Marian Moskowitz) over which of their offices has proper authority to investigate the contract and ensuing payments. But while Reif has contended she should probe this purchase that the commissioners approved, her Republican opponent Regina Mauro has criticized her for disbursing millions of dollars of taxpayer money to Advaite and not questioning the contract from the start.

Specifically, Mauro has raised doubts about the corporation’s short history (about three years), its modest staff, its unidentified clientele, and its unrelated general focus (on diagnosis and treatment of eye conditions).

“As the county’s fiscal watchdog, the controller is expected to prevent or advise against anything that poses a financial risk or loss, especially in difficult times when funds are most needed,” Mauro said. “While it was not within the controller’s purview to negotiate or enter into this agreement on behalf of the county, as its fiscal watchdog, the controller would have been expected to have a powerful voice making the case against taking on such obvious risk, or at least insisting on specific provisions that would protect the county.”

“I have heard directly from many people who have had problems with the way the controller has run the office,” Mauro said. “Sadly, the first thing some ask me is if I know what I’d be getting into, because it is that bad. It is regrettable that all are in fear of reprisal should they come forward to testify on the condition that the office is in, and all the costly mistakes that have been caused by the controller’s decisions.”

Reif’s office did not return a call for comment.

This article first appeared in Broad and Liberty.


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.