Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 2, 2013

'Small gov't' official taps taxpayers for thousands

BY GLENN PUIT gpuit@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — SUTTONS BAY — A Leelanau County commissioner who advocates getting "government out of the way" collected more than $222,000 in government wages, taxpayer-financed health insurance benefits and public sector employment perks since 1999, a review of public records shows.

From her perch on the Leelanau commission Melinda Lautner staked out positions against rising government health insurance costs, inflated mileage reimbursements and taxpayer-funded farm preservation programs. But she accepted tens of thousands of dollars in public health insurance benefits, mileage reimbursements, per diems, and farm subsidies.

Additionally, her husband, James Lautner, is listed in U.S. Department of Agriculture records as a recipient of more than $70,000 in federal farm subsidies for the Lautner family farm since 1995.

Lautner said the farm subsidies are reimbursements for failed crops. She told a Record-Eagle reporter she’s earned every dollar she’s collected from county taxpayers and tirelessly worked to save money through reduced government regulations and unnecessary county expenditures.

“As far as my salary goes, I’ve earned it,” Lautner said. “I’ve saved the county a whole lot of money.”

Others question how Lautner can carve out a political career espousing small government while annually pocketing thousands of dollars from public sources.

“Which is it?” said John “Chip” Hoagland, who resigned as chairman of the Leelanau County Economic Development Corporation after butting heads with Lautner and other Leelanau commissioners over the county's unwillingness to participate in a regional job growth strategy.

“You are against big government, but you are willing to take the funds?” Hoagland said. “Which is it?”

Examples of contrasts between Lautner’s political persona and her personal life are ample. Among them is her appointment this year to the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments' Board of Directors. NMCOG is a government-backed, regional planning agency that promotes partnerships between the public and private sector to promote job growth.

Lautner, upon appointment to the agency’s board as a Leelanau County commissioner, quickly filed a state Freedom of Information Act request that sought details on all NMCOG employees’ government-backed salaries and benefits.

“She came onto the Council of Governments board in January as a representative of Leelanau County,” said Elaine Wood, chief executive officer of NMCOG. “We’d only had one board meeting, in February, and at the end of the meeting she made a verbal request for a list of all the employees and all their salaries and a list of all the fringe benefits -- a list of what she termed 'perks.'”

Lautner said she filed the FOIA request because she’s concerned about accountability and transparency at the agency.

A state FOIA request filed by the Record-Eagle with Leelanau County shows that while Lautner questions NMCOG’s salary structure and perks, she’s personally benefitted from a steady increase in government income, health insurance benefits and public sector perks during her career. From 1999 to 2012, she was paid $111,171.73 in net pay by county taxpayers for her part-time work as a county commissioner.

Her taxpayer-financed health insurance program covered her family from 1999 to 2008. The estimated value of that program, based on county documents, came to an additional $111,530.

Lautner’s net pay from county taxpayers jumped dramatically in recent years because of a health insurance perk the county offered her and other commissioners. Lautner, beginning in 2009, began to accept a county-financed “50 percent insurance buyout” for not participating in the county’s health insurance program, county records show.

Lautner now receives an additional $5,000-plus a year for not participating in the county health insurance program. She’s accepted more than $22,000 for that benefit since 2009 alone.

Lautner, in her role as county commissioner, led Leelanau County’s move to reduce health insurance costs spent on county employees.

"It’s a great savings to the county," Lautner said of the buyout, adding what she receives from that benefit is comparable to that of other commissioners. "We've saved thousands on our health insurance with what we’ve done. Our insurance rates have gone down at the county."

County Administrator Chet Janik said the insurance buyout paid to the commissioners is a common practice and saves the county money by removing employees from county health insurance.

Lautner said she now obtains her health insurance elsewhere, but declined to identify the source.

Lautner also was a sharp critic of the Leelanau County Commission on Aging’s prior administrator, Rosie Steffens. In 2012, the county ousted Steffens as COA administrator after an investigation showed housekeepers for the elderly inflated county mileage reimbursement claims. Steffens said a prior county administrator approved the practice, a contention that previous administrator denied.

Lautner frequently collects two different forms of mileage reimbursements from Leelanau County. County records show she’s collected both taxable travel and travel reimbursement expenses that total nearly $11,000 since 1999. Taxable travel reimbursements are paid to commissioners to drive to and from the county government building, while the travel reimbursements reflect payments for mileage to and from other board-related meetings. Lautner began collecting the taxable travel reimbursements in 2009.

Lautner also collected nearly $26,000 in taxpayer–financed per diems from 1999 to 2012 for attending county-related meetings. Per diems are a daily allowance paid in addition to Lautner’s commission salary.

Steffens last week said, “What comes around goes around. I truly believe that.”

She declined further comment.

Lautner said she strongly believes in less government regulations and taxes.

"Let's get government out of the way and let private enterprise do its thing," Lautner said. "Our taxes are too high, our building fees are too high, and zoning is in the way."