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Bucks Co. Controller Accuses Democratic Commissioners of Retaliation

Tensions between the Bucks County controller and the two Democratic county commissioners boiled over at the April 3 Salary Board meeting.

Democratic Commissioners Chair Diane Ellis-Marseglia and Vice Chair Bob Harvie voted against a request from Controller Pamela Van Blunk, a Republican, to give merit bonuses to some of her employees.

A motion for the bonuses failed 2-2, with minority Republican Commissioner Gene DiGiralomo voting with Van Blunk. Van Blunk, who is a lawyer, ran against Ellis-Marseglia and Harvie in 2023.

Ellis-Marseglia called Van Blunk “heartless” and accused her of “mismanagement” for making her employees work so hard and not hiring additional people.

Harvie told her to “decrease overtime. It’s not fair to them” and to hire more people, saying her department has seven unfilled positions.

Van Blunk said the county had not budgeted for those positions.

At the meeting, Van Blunk criticized the two Democrats for trying to get the county taxpayers to pay for a private luncheon.

“The county government is this wonderful system of checks and balances. The controller is a check and balance on the commissioners’ spending,” said Van Blunk. “I was asked to pay for an invoice to pay for over $1,700 for this administration’s inauguration private luncheon. And I denied it. Why? Because we protect the county. How would that look to the county?

“If the newspapers got ahold of that, the county paying $1,700 for a private political party would not look good. We check for fraud, waste, and abuse.”

When DVJournal asked her about the payment for the party, Van Blunk said the caterer removed a $344 service fee. Van Blunk eventually approved $760 for bagels, pastries, and coffee for a breakfast that was available to the public if they happened to come into the building. But she disallowed $780 for the private luncheon.

“The people of Bucks County elected me to be the county’s independent fiscal watchdog, and I take this job very seriously,” Van Blunk said. I’m proud that the Controller’s Office employees are equally dedicated to protecting our taxpayers.

“The personal attacks against me, my office, and my predecessor during a public meeting were, at best, a thinly veiled attempt to retaliate against my office for doing the right thing: denying payment for the commissioners’ private luncheon for their friends and family. At worst, it was an attempt to hamstring our office’s ability to be the independent fiscal watchdog of the county’s spending. However, these personal attacks will not work because as long as I am in office, I will not be intimidated and will continue to protect taxpayer dollars.”

In 2019, Bucks County paid $165,092,733 in employee salaries for 2,422 full-time employees. In the first three years since Marseglia and Harvie took office, ending Dec. 31, 2022, the county paid $179,782 in salaries for 2,374 full-time employees (48 fewer). That is a $14,537,049 increase in salaries, not including increases in pension liability.

During these three years, the commissioners voted to give 2 percent cost-of-living raises.

“This administration has increased salary expenses by $4.3 million in just three years,” said Van Blunk, who did not have the salary figures for 2023 available.

Ellis-Marseglia accused Van Blunk of lying about the luncheon and doubled down on her accusation of mismanagement.

“The entire premise is false. There was no ‘private luncheon.’ Staff and inauguration guests were included. Commissioner DiGirolamo was there with his family and staff as well. Besides that, the controller already paid half the bill. There was no retaliation,” said Ellis-Marseglia.

“If the controller wanted to give her employees raises, she could do so right now, without a salary board action, but has flatly refused,” said Ellis-Marseglia. “Instead, she has allowed a few employees to accrue thousands of hours of overtime, overworking them while leaving seven positions vacant in her office. She also rejected a motion to add a second deputy to ease the burden on her staff and reign in overtime costs. In any business or workplace, this level of overtime would be considered mismanagement, but with taxpayer dollars, it’s even worse,” she said.


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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.