Traverse City Record-Eagle

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August 17, 2012

Editorial: Leelanau must bring clarity to COA mileage dispute

The Commission on Aging imbroglio that has Leelanau County residents divided will need a lot of clarity before it's resolved. And even then, rumors and conspiracy claims seem destined to live on.

Housekeepers at Leelanau County's Commission on Aging were overpaid as much as $84,000 in mileage costs in the last six years, according to county administrator Chet Janik.

Janik said the practice of COA housekeepers charging extra for mileage was discovered when an employee filling in for a vacationing colleague noticed a discrepancy on a mileage reimbursement form; Janik said the employee checked with one of the housekeepers and was told "this is the way we've always done it."

"This has probably been going on for at least five to six years," Janik said. "It's a significant amount of money."

But longtime COA Director Rosie Steffens said Tuesday evening she's being scapegoated and that she and another COA employee were instructed by former county administrator David Gill to inflate the mileage forms to help housekeepers cover the rising costs of gasoline.

Gill, who retired at the end of 2008, "... said he was not aware of it and he certainly would have never authorized it," Janik said. "We asked Rosie if she had any proof ... evidence, and she did not."

Obviously, this is going to be a "she-says-he-said-he-says-he-didn't" kind of impasse that may never be settled to the satisfaction of either side.

Compounding the uncertainty is that on Monday, Janik told the Record-Eagle he had put Steffens on administrative leave in July; but on Tuesday, he said she had resigned the previous week. All that does is add a little fog to the equation.

Obviously, the county can't run on verbal OKs. But the fact remains that Steffens, a beloved figure among the seniors who depend on the agency's services, said she was following orders.

Steffens said Gill told her that if her staff people worked for two or more clients in a day they should double the longest distance driven for mileage reimbursement. "So that's what I did," she said. Further, she said the claims are "... a way to get rid of" her after 26 years on the job. She also said the practice, if improper, should have been caught by county auditors.

County commissioners have reportedly said they don't want to pursue the housekeepers because they were following instructions. But there is going to be plenty of public pressure to reimburse the county for the estimated $84,000 in overpayments.

There are a lot of questions to be asked and answered before this issue is resolved, and transparency must rule the day.

She-said-he-said won't cut it.

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