Leftover funds should not be used as rewards

It has become common practice in Trumbull County’s Job and Family Services Department that after the bills are paid each year, leftover public funds — much of it provided through the state’s Job and Family Services annual funding — had been handed out in the form of employee bonuses, some years reaching up to $1,000 per worker. The bonuses, county officials have said, served as rewards for hard work and incentives for future good performance.

We have argued, however, that is exactly what merit raises are supposed to do. In fact, the agency’s employees last month were granted raises retroactive to August when a new labor contract was inked. As a result, each employee received an average of about $320 to $350 more in his or her checks in retroactive lump sums.

And why should workers in this particular Trumbull County department deserve bonuses any more than their counterparts in other Trumbull County departments that work equally hard but may not be entitled to end-of-year bonuses?

It seems to us the purpose of the practice of awarding bonuses had been two-fold over the years. First it ensured every last dollar of the tax money sent from the state to the local level was utilized to avoid a reduction in future funding or the potential for those dollars to go unused and be returned.

It also provided an opportunity for county commissioners, who might have been coming up for re-election, to hand out the bonuses in a good-will offering to win praise and political support.

Case in point, this year Commissioner Frank Fuda, facing opposition in the May primary election, was very vocal in insisting that the employees should receive the bonuses.

At the end of the day, however, the decision of whether to award the bonuses falls to JFS Director John Gargano, according to a provision that has been part of the employee union contract for years.

This year Gargano made the right decision when he said there were simply too many expenses to issue bonuses to workers in the county’s department of Job and Family Services and the Child Support Enforcement Agency.

Gargano determined it would be “fiscally prudent” to skip the incentive payments this year.

County workers must remember that these incentive payments are not an entitlement. And elected officials must remember leftover money is not a slush fund to be used to earn good will.

In fact, we believe leftover public money — whether from a local source or a state source — should be used only for necessary, essential services. Merit raises — not leftover public money — should be used to reward good behavior.