Planned raises for three Mobile County License Commission employees were put on hold last week after a dust-up between County Commissioners and License Commissioner Nick Matranga.
Addressing commissioners April 26, Matranga said he brought the raises before the County Commission in a spirit of “openness and transparency.”
“We, like all the other agencies, are able to effect cost reductions and reallocate funding for the continuous obligation to provide efficient, judicious public service to our people,” Matranga said. “In other words, we’re taking money we’re saving from one [area], and like the other agencies do, maneuvering it around, as all the other agencies do, to help stay in budget and to reallocate funding as we see fit.”
The issue is, unlike “all the other agencies,” commissioners revoked the License Commission’s authority to manage its own personnel matters during the tenure of former license commissioner and current Mobile County Revenue Commissioner Kim Hastie.That decision came after Hastie attempted to promote 28 employees in her office last June in the final days of a high-profile criminal trial against her. While Hastie bested those charges, her former office has not yet regained the right to manage its employees without the County Commission’s oversight after repeatedly exceeding its budget.
“Part of the reason we pulled back the appointing authority from the license commissioner was because we were having personnel line overruns every single year,” Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said. “When she [Hastie] had the appointing authority, she was hiring, promoting and doing whatever, then at the end of the year she’d be $30,000 to $40,000 over budget.”
According to Ludgood, the move was made so commissioners could ensure the License Commission’s budget was monitored — calling the push for 28 simultaneous promotions “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Ludgood and Commission President Jerry Carl also took issue with Matranga’s plans to fund the raises with money saved from a computer programming contract terminated last December — a contract previously held by a key witness in Hastie’s 2015 trial.
APL Software LLC and its owner, Victor Crawford, have a long-standing and sometimes-controversial history with Mobile County, the details of which became public after Crawford told federal investigators about activities in Hastie’s office that led to her 16-count indictment in 2014.
Crawford has a documented history of overbilling the county for his work and even being granted permission to repay it by personal friends within the government. According to Matranga, his services previously cost the county an average of $47,000 per month.
When commissioners voted 2-1 to terminate APL Software’s contract last December, Matranga said its replacement — Pelham-based Ingenuity Inc. — was expected to save the county $690,000 in its first three years of operation. At the time, Ludgood voted against the measure and said it was obvious Crawford’s ousting was “about politics.”
While Matranga said the money is being saved as promised, he did acknowledge those savings were planned to facilitate the requested raises. While Matranga said his office was “the county just as much as the county commission,” Ludgood and Carl accused the License Commission of “not sharing.”“You told us you wanted to cancel the contract so you could save money, but now, instead of an actual savings, what we’re seeing is you spending it as fast as you can — creating this huge increase in your personnel line,” Ludgood said. “If I had known that was what was going to happen at the time you canceled that contract, I would have made a motion to amend the budget to remove the difference.”
Ludgood added that even if the surplus funds raises today, the county would have to pick up recurring costs in Matranga’s personnel budget in years to come. However, she said if Matranga could facilitate the raises within his existing personnel budget, she would have no objection.
According to Matranga, though, the flexibility to move money internally ultimately provides savings because it prevents his office from having to “come back to the commission and say, ‘I need more money.” Again, he pointed out other department heads are allowed that discretion.
“It’s not a matter of, ‘Yes, I’m going to save money and turn it back over to the County Commission.’ That would be nice, but I’m taking the money from operations and putting it over here on the personnel side, as we have the authority to do,” Matranga said. “So yes, I’m moving money around, but all the other agencies do the same thing.”
Carl, who had mostly stayed out of the exchange, interjected to say he had always disagreed with those types of internal transfers, regardless of the agency. According to Carl, the intention of a budgetary line item is to set and use a fixed amount of funding.
“In my opinion, it shouldn’t be going on in any department, but as we all know, some days I’m just one vote,” Carl said. “It seems to be a direct focus of every department to spend, because, ‘if you don’t spend it, next year they’re going to take from you.’ I’ve heard it a thousand times, but we as a county have got to stop focusing on spending and start focusing on saving.”
Commission Connie Hudson disagreed with the notion that internal transfers are a bad management practice, and made it a point to thank department heads for working within their respective budgets.
“We would not have been able to do what we have [without] the cooperation of the agencies to stay in budget, and sometimes that means moving money from operations to personnel,” she said. “If you can’t do that, you often have to come back to the commission to ask for more money, and that’s not an efficient way of handing it.”
Ultimately, commissioners tabled Matranga’s request to approve the new raises pending further review. That motion was made by Ludgood, who again said she wouldn’t object to any raises funded within the License Commission’s existing personnel budget.