Michigan seems to be in the news for all the wrong reasons during this year of pandemic. While this state has been hit with many political and environmental issues, there is one more political controversy surfacing from the state.
On the one hand, there are nearly 650k Michiganders in a panic as the Unemployment Insurance Agency has served them refund notices to refile the paperwork for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits at some point during the pandemic and prove their eligibility.
On the other, Republican elected officials in Shiawassee County, Michigan, shamelessly voted to allot themselves hefty bonuses in the form of "Covid hazard pay" from the American Rescue Plan funds allocated for essential workers, only to return it back under public pressure and a lawsuit.
The Commissioners of Shiawassee County awarded themselves $25,000 each for their in-person work during the coronavirus pandemic. The lower-income county employees pocketed between $1,000 and $2,000 each.
These funds were part of $557,000 earmarked for hazard pay under the American Rescue Plan (ARP).
In Ossowa, Michigan, the Argus-Press reported that the elected officials allotted "the bulk" of the funds to themselves. But this was not right as those funds were for workers whose jobs put them at considerable risk of contracting the coronavirus and whose jobs were significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The top six officials, including the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeremy Root and Sheriff Brian BeGole, received $25,000 each last week. Other elected officials received $10,000 or $12,500 each. Four other commissioners pocketed $5,000 each.
Nichole Ruggiero of Hemlock, Michigan, sued these officials, claiming that the approval for disbursement of funds violated Michigan's Open Meetings Act.
Ruggiero's suit accuses three commissioners of holding a "secret private meeting" to finalize and agree on the bonuses "outside the view of the public."
One commissioner even came forward saying she was unaware of the cash payments arrangements to officials and believed that she was only voting for payments to essential workers.
In her Facebook post, Commissioner Marlene Webster said, "Some of us believed we were voting to give about $2,148 to county employees," The lawsuit also stated that, despite the officials' hefty paydays, other county employees only received an average of $2,148 in ARP funds.
The Shiawassee County prosecutor, Scott Koerner, who received $12,500, said he believed the payments were illegal.
Koerner, in a statement given on Friday, said, "Not only am I not entitled to this money because of the Michigan constitution, but me giving the money back is just the right thing to do. I still hope that the hard-working frontline employees of the county continue to benefit from these sums of money—they are the ones who deserve it,"
These payments to elected and appointed officials possibly violate both the federal rules for ARP funds and the Michigan constitution.
A Treasury Department spokesperson told MLive that the agency's interim final rules for the ARP stipulate that the funds should prioritize low-income and essential workers who were at the most significant risk of contracting Covid-19 due to their jobs.
Bowing down to public pressure, the county commissioners released a statement on Friday stating that they and all other elected officials who received funds will voluntarily return the funds to ARP.
In his statement, the commissioner said, "Since the time the payments were made, confusion about the nature of these funds has run rampant. The commissioners deeply regret that this gesture has been misinterpreted and have unanimously decided to voluntarily return the funds to the county, pending additional guidance from the state of Michigan."
While the commissioners may be in denial modes, it's heartbreaking to see our own elected representatives trying to milk the system when thousands in the state are jobless, homeless, or suffering from the effects of the pandemic.
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