KEY LARGO -- Over the objections of local activists who don't want Key Largo Wastewater Board members to receive $51,000 in back pay, the district's senior staff has decided to cut the checks anyway.
The back pay matter, which was initially on the district's Sept. 17 agenda for action, was removed at the beginning of the meeting.
Since there was a legal obligation to pay them the money, no vote was required, district Manager Margaret Blank told the board members.
Further, she said, board members would likely see the increase in their paychecks, which means the unbudgeted spending would not need to go before the board for approval.
Blank said the money will come out this year's budget for expenses.
The back pay is cost-of-living increases that was provided for in the district's charter but never collected by board members after the index for calculating those increases was repealed by the state.
According to numbers provided by Blank, board member Norm Higgins will receive $11,416.50; board member Andy Tobin, $10,536.73; chairman Robby Majeska, $10,525.29; board member David Asdourian, $2,034.02; and board member Steve Gibbs, $1,646.59.
Also to be paid are former board members Susan Hammaker, who is owed $8,780.19, and Charlie Brooks, who died in March and is owed $9,769.92. Neither Blank nor Ray Giglio, the sewer district's attorney, have said how Brooks' estate would be compensated.
At the latest meeting, public meeting regulars Sue Heim and John Hammerstrom both urged the board to walk away from the money.
Hammerstrom described the board's decision to not vote on the back pay as cowardly. He added the district should seek outside legal opinion, instead of relying solely on Giglio's word.
"He could make an argument that you shouldn't take the back pay and it would be very compelling," Hammerstrom said.
He said board members have served without the expectation of back pay. Their compensation was $300 per meeting until the board sought and received a cost-of-living increase earlier this year from the state that added $88 to their per-meeting stipend.
"You became commissioners knowing what the pay was, and this is a potential windfall," Hammerstrom said.
Heim, meanwhile, said Key Largo ratepayers oppose the payout.
"There are two sides, can you and should you?" she said.
Heim described Giglio's six-page memo justifying back pay for board members as part of a gratuitous circle between senior staff and the board.
In February, the board approved a new contract with Blank that raised her annual salary from $111,000 to $118,000, and in June, it agreed to raise Giglio's salary from $90,000 to $96,000 beginning in October. Giglio's raise comes one year after the board increased his pay from $60,000 to $90,000.
Giglio recently told the Free Press that he resurrected the back pay matter on his own initiative after the board in February abandoned a prior effort to claim the money. He drafted his memo in July calling for the back pay.
Heim asked board members who face re-election next fall how they intended to respond to questions about accepting the money. Seats held by Asdourian, Tobin and Higgins will be contested.
"Do you want the answer to be, 'Because my lawyer said so?'" she asked. "Is the money you take today, if you take it, worth your future election?"
In an email exchange with the board, Key Largo resident and activist Kay Thacker said she would make sure the issue is brought up next fall.
"The back pay is hard-earned money from the ratepayers of Key Largo, and you each know the situation of the economy," Thacker wrote. "I think your attorney is doing a disparity to you and to the ratepayers of Key Largo."
During last week's meeting, Giglio responded to Hammerstrom and Heim by saying the district must adhere to the law.
"It's just that simple," he said.
Giglio said if a board member turns down the money, it would be tantamount to writing a check to the district for political gain, which he described as inappropriate.
"For a commissioner to stand up here and say I don't want my money, and you should elect me because I'm not going to accept some of the money of which I'm entitled, is essentially bribery," Giglio told the board.
"It sounds like we're caught between the law ... and public opinion," Gibbs said.
Asdourian was uncomfortable with the discusssion.
"I knew what the salary was when I was appointed," Asdourian said. "I was willing to accept that."
Higgins, however, said he would abide by Giglio's advice.
"As far as I'm concerned, whatever the law is, that's the way it is," he said.
Side-stepping the back pay matter, Majeska said he would prefer board members be paid a salary set at $10,000 and do away with per-meeting compensation. That, though, would require a charter change and approval from the Florida Legislature.
Tobin left the meeting before the back pay discussion began, but in an email wrote the money is legally owed to the board.
"It is wrong to suggest that our policy should be based on who is starving or who needs money," Tobin wrote. "The correct policy is whether the district is legally obligated to meet its obligations."