Controller critical of Westmoreland County's human resources outsourcing

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In an unusual move, Westmoreland County Controller Jeff Balzer stood at the podium last week at the county commissioners’ meeting and strongly disagreed with the commissioners’ decision to replace longtime human resources director Chuck Dominick, 62, with an outside management firm.

Mr. Balzer is the county’s fiscal watchdog and an independently elected official. He is a Republican who was elected in 2011 when fellow Republicans, commissioners Chuck Anderson and Tyler Courtney, took the reins of county government for the first time in more than 50 years.

“I just don’t buy the math,” Mr. Balzer said. “They are going to pay double —- they are paying Felice Associates $216,000 a year when the director made $95,000."

Mr. Anderson and Mr. Courtney approved the contract with Felice Associates of Greensburg, with Democratic Commissioner Ted Kopas voting no. They said Mr. Dominick, a Democrat who has been with the county for about 22 years, would get a severance package and a county pension.

Mr. Dominick said he had no comment when reached at home and said he was still in discussions with the county on a severance agreement.

The human resource director handles benefits and labor negotiations for the county’s 2,000 employees. The county has 12 bargaining units.

“We don’t need an outside firm,” Mr. Balzer said at the meeting. “It’s been made painfully clear to me that I do not have a vote here, but I do have a voice. And the people elected a watchdog, not a lapdog. I want to sound the alarm on financial matters.”

Mr. Kopas called it an “unjustified firing,” and said he preferred an in-house director. He criticized the move because it would spend more money when the county has a $10.6 million deficit.

Mr. Anderson and Mr. Courtney said the move would save money in the long run, mainly in fees paid to legal firms. Last year, the county paid about $130,000 to the Campbell law firm in Pittsburgh for HR legal fees. But last week, commissioners moved to contract with the firm of Strassburger, McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky at a fee of $155 an hour for attorneys, when needed.

But Mr. Balzer disagreed that outsourcing the director’s job would save on legal fees.

“Unless you can persuade people not to sue the county, I don’t see how you are going to avoid those legal fees,” he said.

After the meeting, Mr. Anderson said they wanted to "move the office forward” with new technology, and updated job descriptions and pay scales. Mr. Courtney said a consultant in 2012 had found deficiencies in the office — including job descriptions that had not been updated in 20 years — and said the checks and balances in the office were not good.

He said the county has been happy with Felice, which this year had a $24,000 contract to provide labor negotiators for the human resources department. That contract will end this month.

Mr. Balzer wanted commissioners to table the issue for 90 days to research other options, including other bids or hiring a new in-house director.

But Mr. Courtney said they didn’t want to table the issue because the county is in the midst of negotiations with two unions.

After the meeting, Mr. Balzer said Mr. Dominick had been doing a “good job,” and said Mr. Dominick was in the controller’s office three or four times a day to discuss payroll or benefits issues for county employees.

Mr. Kopas provided a summary of the consultant’s report that Mr. Courtney cited, completed by the firm HRC of Johnstown, which praised the county HR staff for its strong work ethic and dedication. But it noted the majority of the staff’s time was spent with labor negotiations and labor issues and suggested a realignment, giving more focus to non-union employees and delegating specific assignments to individual office staff.

Mr. Balzer sent a letter to county judges and elected officials opposing the outsourcing move and said his vocal opposition had resulted in something: “At first, they were going to sign a four-year contract with Felice for $865,000,” he said. "Now, at least, it is a one-year contract, with the option to renew each year. So I’m proud of that, at least.”

Commissioners said Felice and Associates will choose the full-time HR director, who will begin in February.

Debra Duncan, freelance writer:

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