GREENWOOD, Miss. -- State Auditor Shad White is demanding that the Leflore County supervisors repay more than $113,000 in coronavirus relief funds that they awarded in hazard pay late last year to county employees.
The auditor’s office claims the expenditure was illegal, and the four supervisors who voted for the bulk of the expenditure appeared to ignore an attorney general’s opinion in doing so.
The auditor’s demand was first reported by The Taxpayers Channel.
All five supervisors received demand letters Tuesday. Four — District 2’s Reginald Moore, District 3’s Anjuan Brown, District 4’s Eric Mitchell and District 5’s Robert Collins — have been each ordered to pay $28,270.80, including interest and investigative costs.
District 1’s Sam Abraham was asked to repay only $118.28 because he voted against the inital expenditure of more than $100,000 and only agreed a month later to paying hazard pay to one county worker who had been left out of the original distribution of $500 per employee.
“I was not comfortable on voting on the original $500 per employee,” Abraham said Friday.
He said he could not recall why he voted yes for paying the one employee, which was approved unanimously.
Abraham said he has repaid already his share of the auditor’s demand.
On Dec. 7, after coming out of a closed-door meeting, the board voted 4-1 to award the hazard pay to the roughly 200 county workers. In the public portion of the meeting, there was no specific mention of a Nov. 10 attorney general’s opinion, issued at the request of Board Attorney Joyce Chiles, that laid out conditions under which counties can supply incentive pay, saying it cannot be issued retroactively. Most of the supervisors’ discussion during the public portion of the meeting centered on getting the additional compensation paid before Christmas.
The hazard pay came from roughly $327,000 the county received from last year’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
The supervisors were given 30 days from Tuesday, when each received a letter from the State Auditor’s Office, to make the repayments.
Logan Reeves, a spokesman for the auditor’s office, said Friday that he understands the investigation began earlier this year after the second vote involving the one employee.
While Reeves would not detail what prompted the office to specifically launch an investigation into Leflore County, he said that in general the State Auditor’s Office “does its best to stay abreast of happenings as it relates to transaction of public funds across the state.”
If the supervisors do not pay back the money within 30 days, “the cases will be transmitted to the Attorney General’s Office for a civil suit to be filed,” Reeves said.
The supervisors can repay the money from their own pocket, he said. A more likely scenario, he said, is that the State Auditor’s Office would work with the company that bonded the supervisors to recover the funds, and the surety bond company would then file civil suits against the supervisors to recoup that money.
Brown said he followed advice from Chiles that it was legal to award the hazard pay.
“I definitely wanted to help the county employees and all the employees that were involved in this COVID situation. I did it out of good faith,” he said.
“We felt it was legal. We would have no reason to feel it would come back to haunt us.”
Brown said he is waiting to see what comes out of discussions by Chiles with the State Auditor’s Office before deciding whether to repay the money.
The topic of hazard pay to county employees was first discussed among the board last summer. Abraham had asked Chiles to request an attorney general’s opinion about the possibility.
That opinion said that “a county may only expend county funds for incentive pay, including ‘hazard pay,’ when such incentives are contracted for prior to the date when services are to be performed.”
The opinion also stated: “Payments to employees in which there is no pre-existing obligation to make the payments, as in the case of bonuses, or in which payments are made for future services that have not been provided at the time the payments are made, as in the case of donations, are considered unlawful, in accordance with Mississippi Constitution Article IV, Sections 66 and 96.
“We are of the opinion that a county may only expend county funds for the payment of ‘hazard pay’ where the criteria for incentive pay are met. Accordingly, such pay must be (1) contracted for between the parties or with the employee prior to the date when services are to be performed; (2) determined in accordance with objective standards of measurement; and (3) earned by personal services performed by the employees.”
Moore, the president of the board, declined to comment on the auditor’s demand, referring all questions to Chiles.
Chiles could not be reached for comment Friday.
Abraham and Brown said the state auditor’s action is all the more reason that they have been hesitant about deciding how to spend the most recent round of coronavirus relief money. Leflore County has received so far $2.7 million from the American Rescue Plan approved by Congress this year, and the county is scheduled to receive an equal amount in 2022.
Abraham said he is not sure whether it is federal law or state law that dictates how the county should spend its federal stimulus relief funds.
“This is the very reason why I’m hesitant,” Brown echoed. “Just because federal guidelines say that we can spend this money a certain way, it’s got to line up with state guidelines.
“We’ve got to make sure that everything lines up and we need to take our time in doing that.”
- Contact Gerard Edic at 662-581-7239 or firstname.lastname@example.org.