Porter County auditor: Layoffs ‘heartbreaking’ but necessary
By Amy Lavalley Post-Tribune correspondent February 4, 2014 6:33PM
Updated: March 6, 2014 6:46AM
VALPARAISO — Employees from the Porter County Auditor’s Office who lost their jobs earlier this week because of office restructuring said Tuesday they never saw the cuts coming.
“In my life, it’s one of the worst injustices I’ve seen,” one former employee, who requested anonymity, said.
Auditor Bob Wichlinski released four members of his staff Monday in what he called a restructuring of his office, and said more cuts are coming.
Wichlinski said Tuesday his office staff was at 16, down from 20. He did not specify how many additional positions might be cut, though he said there are no more chief deputies or chiefs of staff in his office, as job titles have changed.
The former employees said those cuts included some of the longest-serving workers in the office, as well as two employees whose spouses are battling cancer.
Wichlinski said the decision was not based on years of experience and not one he took lightly. “It’s a heartbreaking experience. It’s one of the most difficult things a leader can do.”
The employees said while Wichlinski said he made $250,000 in budget cuts by trimming his staff, he’s not taking into account the tens of thousands of dollars his department spends each year on consultants — work that used to be done by the staff without the additional cost.
“I always made less than anything they thought to pay a consultant, and what did I get?” the former employee said.
Workers are supposed to receive two weeks notice before they lose their jobs, according to the employee handbook, a second former employee said.
“There was one minute,” that worker said, adding that, after talking to Wichlinski, a box for personal belongings “was at your desk when you got back.”
Though he has been considering restructuring his staff since he took office as auditor three years ago, Wichlinski said last week’s County Council meeting, during which Council President Dan Whitten, D-At-large, noted a budget shortfall of $5.3 million for this year and upwards of $8 million for next year, played a roll in his decision.
Also at the meeting, Councilwoman Karen Conover, R-3rd District, suggested sending out a letter to elected officials and department heads asking them to watch their budgets.
“That’s absolutely part of it. We can’t maintain the staffing levels in the county. We just can’t,” Wichlinski said, adding he didn’t want to wait for a letter from the council. “I went ahead and did it.”
Whitten said he indicated that departments need to make cuts and reduce spending, or the council would do it for them.
“A target for cuts should be in the area of 5 percent,” he said, adding that didn’t mean staff reductions. “It is entirely up to the office holder where to reduce.”
Other council members said that though the message at the meeting was to watch budgets, that didn’t include cutting staff.
“By no means did we say, go out and fire five people,” said Councilman Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd District, adding the message was, “watch your pennies and if you don’t need it, don’t spend it.”
Councilwoman Sylvia Graham, D-At-large, agreed.
“We certainly did not tell people to fire anyone. That was not the message of the council at all,” she said, adding the council asked department heads to be mindful of the budget, and any staff reductions by Wichlinski would have been his call.
At the same time, she said the auditor is an elected official who has to do what he thinks is best for the functioning of his office.
“I really think that’s up to the elected official,” she said.
Other council members agreed on that point, noting that personnel expenses eat up about 75 percent of the county’s budget, including salaries and benefits.
“With the hole we have, it had to come from somewhere,” said Councilman Jim Polarek, R-4th District. “As an officeholder, that’s his job, to run his office the best way he can do it.”
Councilman Jim Biggs, R-1st District, said he sympathizes with the employees who lost their jobs, but he doesn’t know if the county’s employees, department heads and elected officials realize the county’s financial situation.
“We’re going to have to take very serious action to compensate for what’s happening,” he said. “We leave it up to the department heads to manage their departments as they see best.”
If anyone is aware of how dire the county’s finances are now, Biggs said, it’s the auditor, who sees the county’s expenses and income.
“This is a runaway train and if we don’t get control of it, it’s going to crash, and it’s happening,” he said. “Thankfully, some department heads have taken heed.”