Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 18, 2012

Newsmakers: Leelanau Commission on Aging revamped

Reimbursement over mileage at heart of controversy


Editor's note: Part of a series of stories about people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region in 2012.

SUTTONS BAY — A makeover at the Leelanau County Commission on Aging continues with an agency name change and disbanding of the COA's advisory board.

County Administrator Chet Janik said the COA was renamed the Leelanau County Department of Senior Services last week. A longtime COA advisory board also was shut down — for now, at least — continuing a tumultuous 2012 in which two COA employees retired after inflated mileage payments were made to housekeepers.

"The COA needs a fresh start and an enhanced reputation with the citizens of Leelanau County," Janik said.

COA Director Rosie Steffens and employee Madonna Jackson retired in the wake of the mileage reimbursement controversy. An investigation by Janik's office found COA housekeepers deliberately inflated their mileage reimbursement requests to help cover the rising cost of gasoline as they drove from home to home to clean seniors' houses.

But the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners did not approve the inflated payments. The county doled out nearly $100,000 in excess payments and tax liabilities, and the housekeepers also faced additional tax liabilities.

Steffens is popular with many seniors in Leelanau County. She told the Record-Eagle overpayments were authorized by a former county administrator because of rising gas costs.

"I went to the then-county administrator explaining this to him, asking what could be done, and he told me and another one of my staff people that if they did two or more clients in a day, double the longest distance driven, so that's what I did," Steffens said.

The former County Administrator, David Gill, denied the allegation during a public meeting in September.

"I never would ... condone a department head of this county to at best violate county policy, and at worst do something illegal," Gill said.

The Board of Commissioners dropped the COA millage rate by 31 percent, from 0.275 to 0.19, due to an excess fund balance of nearly $500,000. A new COA director, April Missias, started work two weeks ago.

Gwenne Allgaier served on the COA advisory board since January. She has mixed feelings about its shutdown. She said there's a need to get more representatives on the board from groups who regularly work with seniors. But she does not want to see the advisory board reconstituted with only members of the county board.

"They told us we can reapply in March," Allgaier said. "I hope that they will get more expertise from the community rather than just trying to micromanage with more commissioners."

Roy Pentilla served on the advisory board for years. He said he received an email from Janik last week notifying him the advisory board was being dissolved.

"I think it's the right thing to do," Pentilla said, noting there was a disconnect between the county board and the advisory board.

"One way to do that is to (dissolve) the advisory board and start fresh," Pentilla said.