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Coaldale officials say water authority officers make too much money

Published December 08. 2009 05:00PM

Coaldale Borough officials agree with a Lansford Borough Councilman that Lansford-Coaldale Joint Water Authority officers make too much money and benefits for the hours they put in.

But water authority members who attended a special meeting held Monday to discuss the matter say the salaries, health care, pension and workers' compensation benefits are justified.

After about 30 minutes of discussion, Mayor Claire Remington proposed limiting the number of 5-year terms that any officer can serve on the authority. Coaldale solicitor Michael Greek said at an earlier meeting that council's only recourse is to appoint new people to the authority when seats open.

"I think some people are getting some good bucks up there," Remington said.

Lansford Councilman Tommy Vadyak, who has for years sought to cut back the salaries and benefits, has said the compensation set by the boroughs is $25 a month or $300 a year.

Each borough appoints the officers; Lansford three and Coaldale two. The officers set their own salary and benefit packages and establish their own working conditions. According to water authority records, the board chairman (Toby Krajcirik, Lansford) earns $15,000 a year; the vice chairman/superintendent (John Surma, Coaldale) $47,000; the treasurer (Richard Pogwist, Lansford) $8,000; the secretary (Bob Demyanovich, Coaldale) $8,000 and the assistant secretary/treasurer (Frank Horvath, Lansford) $6,800. In addition, the chairman receives a $2,250 annual stipend; the vice chairman, treasurer, secretary and assistant secretary-treasurer each receive an annual $2,150 stipend. Surma, Demyanovich and Krajcirik received health benefits. They, and Pogwist, are enrolled in a pension plan. Hourly employee wages range from $13.50 to $16.21. All employees, including the officers, who define themselves as full-time employees, are eligible for medical benefits.

Under questioning, Demyanovich on Monday said the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Act allows the officers to be paid the health benefits regardless of how many hours they work. "So you can put one hour a week in up there and be eligible for health benefits?" asked Councilwoman Joanne Melloy.

"If you are a salaried employee," Demyanovich said.

Coaldale Councilman Joe Hnat initially asked for a closed session to discuss the matter. Greek denied the request, saying that to do so would violate state Open Meetings laws. Hnat said council was never informed of the officers change in status or salary, which he called "outrageous."

Surma said the changes were instituted in Jan. 2007 after auditors hired following the embezzlement of about $80,000 by a longtime water authority employee advised the officers to become more involved in the day-to-day operations.

Letters explaining the changes were sent on Jan. 31, 2007, to both councils, Demyanovich said. He read aloud the letter, and said he and Surma had attended the following council meeting to answer questions.

Councilman Tom Keerans quizzed Demyanovich about his jobs at St. Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital, a minimart and for the water authority. Keerans wanted to know how Demyanovich can work full-time for the Water Authority while holding down the other jobs.

"I have the probably the best employer that anybody could have, because they don't have a problem with me running to the office, they don't have a problem with me getting phone calls, they don't have a problem with the service men seeing me every day," he said. "I'm available all the time."

Melloy was skeptical that brief conversations with people would constitute work.

Demyanovich said he also researches and writes grants. "It's an everyday thing for me," he said. He said health insurance is available through his hospital job, but he would have to pay a premium there.

Borough Fire Chief Richard Marek supported the officers, saying they have come to training with firefighters to learn more about the borough's water systems.

Remington also chided the water authority for what she said was nepotism and for holding meetings during the day, when few people can attend.

Vadyak has taken his complaints to Carbon County District Attorney Gary Dobias and to state agencies.

County Detective John Mauro on June 6, 2008, sent Vadyak a letter saying that no criminal misconduct was found. State Ethics Commission Executive Director John J. Contino in a March 14, 2008, letter to Vadyak wrote that his complaint failed to provide specific information to allow a determination.

The state's Local Government Commission in a letter dated Nov. 12, 2008 wrote that if the water authority officers created their offices for financial gain, it could be a violation of the state ethics laws. It also said that employees, not officers, were allowed benefits (Krajcirik said the officers are salaried employees) and that if the officers were paid for hours they didn't actually work, it could be a violation of ethics laws "as well as a possible crime."

The dispute is unlikely to go away anytime soon: On Aug. 5, Vadyak filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the state Municipal Retirement Board for details on money water authority officers were having set aside in a pension fund.

On Oct. 28, water authority solicitor James R. Nanovic sent a letter to the Municipal Retirement System, saying that he is investigating possible "inappropriate " contributions made several years ago to the authority's pension fund.

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