Dec. 21—METHUEN — As officials prepare documentation to back up claims that 346 municipal employees deserved hazard pay of up to $1,500, city councilors took Mayor Neil Perry to task Monday night for issuing what the state called "impermissible bonuses" during the COVID-19 pandemic without their consent.
It is unclear exactly how much of the $500,000 in hazard pay must be returned to the state's Executive Office of Administration and Finance, but following a Zoom call last week with Perry and Solicitor Kenneth Rossetti, plans are underway to prove a more direct link between the employees who received stipends and their risk of contracting COVID-19.
Several councilors openly vented their frustration to Perry — like Chairman Steve Saba for feeling "blindsided" by the stipends themselves, or like Mike Simard and D.J. Beauregard, over Perry's definition of essential employees.
Perry, for his part, assured councilors and residents there was no malicious intent behind his decision to issue the hazard pay.
"No matter what's said publicly, there was no preconceived process to 'beat the system,'" Perry said.
"We can respectfully disagree, but we're not going to say that this mayor willfully or intentionally rode the city, especially when this mayor's responsible for the city's free cash position," Perry said. "I'll never say this publicly other than here tonight: I've done a damn good job these two years. I'm not going to take abuse because this situation is screwed up...There are things we could have done better on the city side — lesson learned — but I'm not going to take a $500,000 bump on the chin from the state when they gave me the approval."
At Monday's meeting Councilor Jessica Finnochiaro brought up Chapter 278, the legislation drafted in 2018 after the city was forced to borrow more than $4 million to offset a budget deficit related to the School Department. With Chapter 278 came the creation of Chief Administration and Finance Officer Maggie Duprey's position and the oversight of Fiscal Stability Officer Sean Cronin. Duprey is hired by the city while Cronin works for the state.
Finocchiaro pointed to Section 5 of the state law that discusses how officials are not to knowingly cause the city to "be committed to any obligation for the future payment of money." After Finocchiaro read the state law, Perry took her comments to mean that she was calling him neglectful and said her comments were "semi-slanderous."
Rossetti did not interpret that portion of the law to refer to grant appropriations — like the hazard pay issue — but instead said he believed it to involve budgets. Finocchiaro, however, said she and other councilors were not made aware of that when they wrote the legislation three years ago.
"This isn't the first time Methuen has had to pay back a grant or a federal stipend and investigations made it clear that the same issues were at play: A lack of reporting, a lack of using funds in a timely manner and a lack of prior approval," Finocchiaro said. "Methuen was required to pay back that money in full. I do find it (the law) relevant. I do take offense to questions of slander. I literally quoted state law relevant to Methuen and that's it."
Further, Finocchiaro asked Perry if he would "take meaningful action to make sure this doesn't happen again," especially as the city prepares to appropriate $46 million in American Rescue Plan Act money.
Perry has appealed the state's decision to take back the hazard pay. He said that if the appeal is unsuccessful, he plans to petition Gov. Charlie Baker. Then, he will explore avenues to use ARPA funds, and — as a last resort — free cash.
Duprey anticipates that some hazard pay will be allowed, depending on employees' roles and potential COVID-19 exposure. There is no timeline for the state A&F review — the process is "rolling"— but records will be sent to the state by Christmas. In the case of police officers and firefighters, for example, dispatch logs and payroll records are being used to corroborate which public safety personnel were on calls involving COVID-19 patients.
"The door is not closed to the city," Rossetti said. "(A&F) acknowledged, to their credit, the reversal of the messages to the city in this process."
Saba asked Perry to work with councilors for the sake of the city and its finances.
"We've asked for detailed reports and there's been a lack of information, Saba said. "I spoke to Sean Cronin and he reiterated that this council has no say in that money, but he said we should have communication about it. We had no communication...we should be working together."
Beauregard put it simply when he said looking in the rear-view mirror just had to stop.
"We can play the game of 'woulda, coulda, shoulda,' but at this point we need to talk about how we are going to move forward and avoid this from happening again," he said.