AKRON, Ohio — Cities across Ohio have a challenge on their hands: How to spend the billions of federal dollars allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For some cities, the solution has been hiring consultants to help decide how best to spend the $2 billion coming to local Ohio governments.
“They’re actually hiring consultants, paying people to tell them how to spend the money,” said Rea Hederman, executive director of the watchdog Buckeye Institute.
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Case in point: Akron, which has agreed to spend up to $1.6 million for a consulting company to decide where to spend their $145 million windfall.
One expenditure Akron has made is spending up to $5 million for bonuses for nearly 1,600 city workers.
The list, acquired by 3News Investigates, shows $1,000 to $3,000 bonuses being handed to 60 city workers already earning over $100,000, and over 300 workers earning over $80,000, or double the median household income for Akron residents.
While the list targets four unions operating inside the city, it also includes appointed positions such as embattled Police Chief Steve Mylett, and former Fire Chief Clarence Tucker, who was recently appointed to Mayor Dan Horrigan’s cabinet. Each chief was given $3,000 bonuses on top of their $150,000 salary.
Horrigan declined to comment on the bonuses or the consulting contracts with Guidehouse Inc., which he approved.
While most bonuses went to the largest unions, such as those representing police and firefighters, some went to employees permitted to work remotely. A city spokeswoman could not say how many of the 1,800 workers were allowed to stay home during parts of the pandemic.
But there’s one group that never worked from home that found itself excluded from the bonus bonanza.
About 40 workers from the Akron Municipal Clerk of Courts office were mandated to work in-person, maintaining their usual around-the-clock schedule.
The clerks work closely with police handling arrest warrants, and the public, seeking bonds or other court matters. Their duties require the office to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Neither the pandemic, nor the recent protests outside their office building over the shooting of Jayland Walker warranted closing.
“We have people genuinely very upset,” said Clerk of Courts Debbie Walsh. “I think it is insulting that my employees, who work so hard, were not included. Our employees cannot work from home because we are here as service to our police and everyone else. If the police are in the building, we are in the building. That’s one of the reasons I feel they should have been entitled to it.”
Earlier this year, Akron City Council voted to hand Horrigan control over the ARPA purse strings. A spokeswoman said clerk of courts workers are non-union, at-will employees and thus not eligible under their interpretation of ARPA guidelines. In a statement, spokeswoman Stephanie Marsh said:
“The decision was made to cut off the bonuses/retention incentives at appointed and/or elected employees/officials. This decision was based on those classifications alone and was not merit based. Mayor Horrigan of course appreciates the hard work and dedication of all city employees, including the part-time, appointed, and/or elected employees who did not receive the ARPA funded one-time payments.”
Marsh could not explain several examples of non-union employees, some like Mylett and Tucker, being paid over $150,000 being given bonuses.
“Government doesn’t do an effective job of picking winners and losers and unfortunately, we know people benefitting from government largess get the most money from government,” Hederman said.
The Buckeye Institute agrees with many economists who blame today’s high inflation on the surge of federal spending. The group sees one-time spending on workers and consultants placed ahead of infrastructure, like roads or bridges, or even health care, as a failure of government.
“So at the end of the day, there’s no free money that the federal government is using to pay off these bonuses,” Hederman said. “Instead, these are tax dollars being reallocated by the federal government and it’s important for voters to know how this money is being wisely spent.”
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