OPINION: Chris Kelly Opinion: The Wreck of the SS OYFS

Sep. 10—Desperate to retain the skeleton crew bailing furiously to keep the Office of Youth and Family Services afloat, Lackawanna County commissioners turned to a tried and true remedy of sea captains of old.

More rum.

Nothing calms a physically and emotionally overwhelmed, soon-to-be-mutinous crew quite like enticements of short-term relief from pain and suffering. Just keep rowing until we sight land!

The bait in this case is bonuses and temporary pay raises in exchange for not jumping ship before Jan. 1. On Wednesday, Commissioners Debi Domenick, Chris Chermak and Jerry Notarianni unanimously approved up to $20,000 in bonuses for supervisors and administrators who were on the bridge as the ship went wildly off course.

Unionized employees in steerage must row longer for their bonus grog. They will receive $5,000 for staying on at least three months, another $5,000 for six months, and another $10,000 if they can hang on for a full year.

But wait! There's more! The 15 remaining caseworkers and other unionized employees will get a $5-an-hour raise! New crew members willing to board a post-iceberg Titanic will see a $2.50-an-hour raise in their starting salary!

The catch? The raises will be rescinded when agency staffing reaches 75% of the authorized level, or when the sun burns out, which may come first.

More gold is welcome booty for any overworked, underpaid crew, but the county's morale boost has some leaks in its compromised hull. It took a disaster to get caseworkers anything close to fair pay, and the raises disappear once the disaster passes.

Meanwhile, the captain's first mate gets $20,000 just for visiting the bridge through the rest of the year. Kerry Browning — wife of county Department of Health and Human Services Director Bill Browning and his second-in-command at OYFS — is among the administrators who will receive $20,000 bonuses.

Bill Browning will not receive a bonus, county Chief of Staff Brian Jeffers said. Browning still benefits from the bailout, because he's married to the deputy director.

I referred to Kerry Browning by that title at the commissioners' meeting and was corrected by Commissioner Debi Domenick, whose record of attendance has improved with each week she gets closer to leaving office.

On the county's OYFS website, Kerry Browning is listed as deputy director of the agency. In the county's internal phone directory, she is actually described as director of OYFS. I have referred to Kerry Browning as deputy director of OYFS in several columns and conversations, so I was surprised when Domenick "corrected" me.

Jeffers later explained that for Civil Service classification purposes, Kerry Browning's designation is "Assistant Administrator II." Seems like a distinction without a difference to me. In practice, Kerry Browning is deputy director of OYFS. On paper, she is an administrator and eligible for the bonuses.

But will she receive them? I asked Bill Browning himself.

"So, are you getting the bonuses?" I asked.

"No," he said.

"But Kerry is getting the bonuses?"

"I would assume," he said.

"I think you know," I replied. "You are running the place."

And Bill Browning will be running the new county Health Department, a much bigger, more expensive boat than the Titanic he's commanding now. If any aspect of his performance as captain of OYFS recommends promotion, I don't see it. Even when I squint.

Browning and the county blame the agency's inability to retain veteran employees or recruit new ones on District Attorney Mark Powell charging five current and former OYFS employees with endangering eight children in three households and failing to report child abuse.

Their dramatic arrests by Scranton police understandably put fear in other OYFS workers. The job is stressful and demanding enough without fear you might be dragged from your workplace in handcuffs and criminally charged. Arrests are lousy recruiting tools.

The decline of the agency and the exodus of staff was underway before the arrests, however, and through it all, the Brownings were in charge. My educated guess is that they remain in charge largely because no one is qualified or available to replace them.

The pending bonuses will cost $124,300 through the end of the year, Jeffers said. The county's freedom to pay the bonuses is yet another indictment of the Brownings' stewardship of the agency. The money was originally budgeted to pay for OYFS staff positions that were quit, retired or never filled. The bonuses are funded by the absence of employees the Brownings couldn't retain or recruit. Yet all three commissioners voted to give Kerry Browning a bonus.

The OYFS crew striving to keep the ship afloat deserves these bonuses and more. The pay raises should be made permanent by the next administration, if any staffers remain on board after Jan. 1.

If the skeleton crew keeps rowing until then, caseworkers, supervisors, administrators and the first mate are free to abandon ship and keep the bonus money. The captain can watch the SS OYFS slip beneath the waves from the bridge of his newer, bigger boat as at-risk children go down with the ship.

CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, is fresh out of sailing metaphors. For now. Read his award-winning blog at timestribuneblogs.com/kelly. Contact the writer: kellysworld@timesshamrock.com; @cjkink on Twitter; Chris Kelly, The Times-Tribune on Facebook.