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Erie County, New York, legislators call for answers on COVID-19 overtime spending

The downtown area of Buffalo, New York is seen from atop City Hall.

(The Center Square) – On the heels of a recent report that shined a spotlight on top-level public employee COVID-19 overtime spending in Erie County, New York, lawmakers representing the area have expressed a desire to dig deeper into the numbers.

Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw recently released a report on the amount of overtime paid to political appointees in the initial 18 weeks of COVID-19 crisis work.

Under normal circumstances, the employees – known technically as managerial confidential workers – would not receive overtime.

But County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s emergency declaration at the onset of the pandemic lifted the provision. Poloncarz’s ruling gave the county the ability to seek federal reimbursement for COVID-19 expenses though the CARES Act.

Mychajliw’s report, issued July 16, revealed 54 of the political managerial appointees netted a combined $825,039. More than half – $441,655 – was distributed to the sheriff’s department. Top-level employees receiving funds in other county agencies included people working in the health, law and public works departments.

County Legislature Chairwoman April Baskin, D-Buffalo, had requested Mychajliw’s office audit the overtime pay.

Since the report’s release, Baskin and other officials have called for a more thorough explanation from Sheriff Timothy Howard on the rationale behind the overtime spending. Other departments, Baskin said, have provided tracking through an electronic time keeping system, on the COVID-19 overtime funds.

“The sheriff’s office needs to provide similar documentation so the public can begin to get a full picture of the duties and responsibilities of the sheriff’s political appointees during this pandemic,” Baskin said in a statement.

While a specific timetable has not been announced, Baskin said she would take additional steps, if necessary.

“If the sheriff’s office refuses to provide the promised information, I will file a Freedom of Information request, and formal investigations will ensue,” Baskin said.

In a news release announcing his findings, Mychajliw revealed County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein received the largest amount of overtime compensation, totaling $83,996 within the 18-week period.

“No matter who pays the bill, we always need to remember this money comes from hard-working families and taxpayers,” Mychajliw said in a statement. “To put things in perspective, the more than $88,000 for 18 weeks of overtime and holiday pay for the health commissioner is more than two-and-a-half times what the average person in Erie County makes an entire year.”

The $825,039 overtime figure applies only to managerial confidential workers on the county payroll.

In total, Mychajliw said Erie County’s overtime bill seeking federal reimbursement for expenses related to COVID-19 is more than $3.21 million in the 18-week time frame.

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