Republican elected officials in a Michigan county voted to allot themselves hefty payments in the form of “Covid hazard pay” from American Rescue Plan funds designated for essential workers, only returning the funds under public pressure and a lawsuit.
The Shiawassee County commissioners awarded themselves as much as $25,000 each for their in-person work during the Covid-19 pandemic while lower-income county employees received between $1,000 and $2,000 each. The funds were part of $557,000 of American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds earmarked for hazard pay, and elected officials allocated “the bulk” of the funds to themselves, the Argus-Press in Ossowa, Mich., reported. But those funds were intended for workers whose jobs put them at risk of contracting coronavirus and whose jobs were greatly affected by the pandemic.
Six top-level officials, including Board of Commissioners Chairman Jeremy Root and Sheriff Brian BeGole received $25,000 each last week. Other elected and appointed officials received $10,000 or $12,500 payments. Four other commissioners received $5,000 each.
Nichole Ruggiero of Hemlock, Mich., sued the officials, claiming they violated Michigan’s Open Meetings Act when they approved the disbursement of funds. Ruggiero’s suit accuses three commissioners of holding a “secret private meeting” where the amounts of the bonuses were agreed upon “outside the view of the public.” One commissioner even came forward saying she was not made aware of the cash payments to officials and believed she was only voting for payments to essential workers.
“Some of us believed we were voting to give about $2,148 to county employees,” Commissioner Marlene Webster said in a Facebook post. According to the suit, despite the officials’ hefty paydays, other county employees received an average of only $2,148 in ARP funds.
The Shiawassee County prosecutor, Scott Koerner—who received $12,500—said that he believed the payments were illegal. “Not only am I not entitled to this money because of the Michigan constitution, but me giving the money back is just the right thing to do. I still hope that the hard-working frontline employees of the county continue to benefit from these moneys—they are the ones who deserve it,” Koerner said in a statement on Friday.
These payments to elected and appointed officials likely violate both the Michigan constitution and the federal rules for ARP funds. A Treasury Department spokesperson told MLive-The Flint Journal that the agency’s interim final rules for the ARP specify that the funds should prioritize low-income and essential workers who were at the greatest risk of contracting Covid-19 due to their jobs.
Caving to the backlash, the county commissioners released a statement on Friday announcing they and all other elected officials who received payments will voluntarily return the funds. “Since the payments were made, confusion about the nature of these funds has run rampant,” the commissioners said. “The commissioners deeply regret that this gesture has been misinterpreted and have unanimously decided to voluntarily return the funds to the county, pending additional guidance from the state of Michigan.”
This story has been updated.