Milton Township Assessor Chris LeVan has been in his position for less than a month, but he already has fired seven employees, leaving people who worked in the office for years scrambling to find new jobs.
According to a news release issued last week by LeVan's office, the elimination of the positions was "prompted by strict budget constraints forced on the assessor as a result, in part, by personnel pay raises authorized by the previous assessor in the last year of his term in office."
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But former Assessor Bob Earl said he left LeVan with more than enough money in the budget to get through the last quarter of the fiscal year.
"They're blaming the mass firing on the budget shortfall, but there is no budget shortfall," he said. "This is a political firing."
LeVan denies the layoffs were political. He said they needed to be done right away because 85 percent of the payroll budget already is used up and there are still five pay periods left in the fiscal year.
"You never like to have anyone losing their jobs," he said. "I take no pleasure in having to do that. Unfortunately, it was necessary."
Before taking office Jan. 1, LeVan said he tried contacting Earl numerous times to ask if he could come to the office and meet with employees, but he said Earl never responded to the calls and emails.
"It would have been helpful had Bob been willing to give me some sort of transition," LeVan said. Instead, he said, he was forced to make a plan for layoffs before his first day to make sure "the office would continue to work."
On Jan. 3, LeVan let seven employees go, leaving only two full-time employees and one part-time employee who previously worked for Earl. He has since hired three new full-time employees and three consultants.
Those moves resulted in the number of employees with benefits going down from eight to five, LeVan said. Collectively, he said, his new nine-person staff is making less money than the 10-person staff Earl had.
Last April, Earl approved a 16.2 percent pay increase for six employees when he increased their hours from 35 hours a week to 40 hours a week. He said the increase reflected their new hours and a 1.7 percent cost-of-living raise that all full- and part-time employees in his office were given.
Earl said then that part of the reason he needed his employees to work more hours was so there was enough time to assess every parcel in the township before his term ended on Dec. 31.
Last week, Earl said the work was done at the end of November and before he left he reinstated the 35-hour workweek and dropped those employees' pay by 14 percent.
"I think it's a misnomer to call them raises," he said. "When the job was done, I decreased (their pay) because the hours were decreased."
But LeVan said the pay increases were a mistake that hurt the former employees.
"You can't give them (pay increases) and then take them back. You can't make up the difference," he said. "Those raises early on in the year put a strain not only on the budget but on the operations. All of Bob's payroll numbers were a moving target."
According to the December 2013 monthly report on the township's town fund, the assessor's office has used nearly $597,000 of the more than $836,000 that is budgeted for the office this fiscal year. That leaves LeVan with more than $239,000 to spend until March, which Earl said is a similar amount to what he spent each quarter.
Still, LeVan said he expects to be over budget, although he believes he will be able to limit it to an amount that is less than what it would have been without the layoffs.
Cathy Zinga, a former commercial deputy assessor who had worked in the office since 2006, said she is still in shock over the loss of her job.
"The new assessor never sat down and talked to me at all, never got to know any of us, what our capability was," she said.
She said she believes the cuts were "absolutely" politically motivated. "I think that they knew when the new assessor was coming in what they were going to do," she said.
Zinga said she is now struggling to find a new job that will cover her bills and provide health insurance for her family.
"I was hoping to at least have a month where I could have at least proven myself," she said, adding that if she was offered a pay cut she would have gladly taken it over losing her job.