Chesterton Tribune



County Auditor firings put the use of consultants in the spotlight

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A terminated employee of the Porter County Auditor’s Office--one of five cut, a quarter of the staff--is blaming “politics” for her firing.

Auditor Bob Wichlinski denies that allegation and says instead that the five terminated employees would have been ill-suited to the new office environment, as it’s recently been restructured under a collaborative effort with the Assessor’s and Treasurer’s offices.

The employee--who agreed to speak to the Chesterton Tribune on condition of anonymity--said that her termination, after more than 20 years as a county government employee, took her “completely . . . by surprise.”

In particular, she alleged that the Auditor’s Office paid a consultant thousands of dollars--an amount significantly greater than her salaryâ to perform functions which she could have done herself, such as collect homestead credit violations.

Thus, she said, Hannon, Hannon & Hannon was paid a total of $117,950 in 2013. The employee’s salary: $33,000.

Together the Auditors, Assessor’s, and Treasurer’s offices paid consultants a total of $517,272 in 2013.

Wichlinski, for his part, is emphatic that the five employees were terminated based not on the number of years under their belt but rather on their likely inability to thrive in the new office culture, reorganized in terms of the business strategy known as Total Quality Management (TQM). Those five, he said, would “not find success.”

“I’m not going to set up a person for failure,” said Wichlinski. “It’s time to take things to the next level and it’s not going to be tied to personality, it’s not going to be tied to ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’ It’s going to be tied to compliance with the law. It’s going to be tied to customer service, how we can do the best possible job we can for the customer. It’s going to be tied to respect, support and nurturing and fostering the team.”

Wichlinski also disputed the term “firing,” inasmuch as the five can collect unemployment benefits.

Wichlinski is not the only county official to make personnel changes since their election. Assessor Jon Snyder cut his staff by six in 2011, in his first year in office.

But, Wichlinski said, he wanted to wait until he had a grasp on his employees’ capacity for change and adaptation.

Among other things, Wichlinski is eliminating the chief deputy position and workers in his office will be cross-trained in skills. That training is being conducted by Low & Associates and funded by moneys from the Auditor’s non-reverting fund for the TQM program, Wichlinski said.

He added--against critics accusing him of spending large amounts of money at will from the non-reverting fund--that all TQM contracts were approved by majority votes of the County Commissioners and the County Council.

“We are going to offer as much e-Gov as humanly possible and streamline sufficient services as we possibly can so the customer’s visit can be painless. I think we can make it a worthwhile experience,” Wichlinksi said.

Wichlinski is crediting TQM with the collection of $2.04 million in homestead tax credit violations.

County Council President Dan Whitten, D-at large, and Vice-president Karen Conover, R-3rd, told the Tribune that they believe TQM has delivered on its promise for timely tax bills, but that they remain skeptical in a few areas.

Whitten, for one, has misgivings about Wichlinski’s use of consultants in preference to staff. “If you choose to give someone a bunch of consulting money but you’ve got to cut your staff, to me that just seems wrong,” he said.

Conover called the concept of TQM “a great thing” which may in practice have proved “a bit of an overkill.”

And she expressed her satisfaction with a new law which requires money from the Auditor’s non-reverting fund to be distributed to the municipal units of government.

Neither Whitten nor Conover said they could speak to Wichlinski’s decision to reduce his staff.

They did say, however, that it was not the Council’s directive to departments to terminate workers.

On the other hand, Whitten is recommending that departments cut their spending by 5 percent.

But, he said, it’s up to elected officials to run their offices as they see fit.





Posted 2/26/2014