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Should Erie County political appointees still get pandemic overtime? Mychajliw criticizes Burstein’s $87K compensation, while county says he’s off by 30K

WBFO file photo
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz (left) has paid political appointees, like Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein (right), overtime for COVID-19-related work using federal CARES Act money. Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw has criticized the practice.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein is on pace to make over $100,000 in overtime compensation for the second-straight year. That’s at least according to Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, who is once again raising the issue of political appointees making COVID-19-related overtime.

Mychajliw reported this week that Burstein made $86,848 in overtime by working an additional 585 hours during the first nine months of 2021. This comes after Burstein made $183,414 in overtime last year, the most of any county employee. She has a base salary of $209,044.

“This does not cost Erie County taxpayers for one year — they'll be paying this bill for decades to come,”Mychajliw said Friday. “Because it's not just an increased salary for the health commissioner. It’s also factored into her government-paid, taxpayer-funded pension that she will receive for the rest of her life.

“When does it stop? When does it end? COVID is going to be around for quite some time,” he added. “And it would be rather unfortunate to allow political patronage employees to continue abusing taxpayers and using the cover of COVID to pad their salaries and pad their pension.”

 Stefan Mychajliw
Stefan Mychajliw YouTube channel
Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw discusses Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein's overtime compensation in a video posted to his YouTube page Nov. 11, 2021.

However, Peter Anderson, a spokesperson for County Executive Mark Poloncarz, said in an email that Mychajliw’s report is inaccurate. Burstein has only made $54,502 in overtime this year and none since March 26, according to Anderson.

“His math is way off, again,” Anderson said.

Since March, Burstein has instead accrued comp time whenever she works more than 40 hours in a week, according to Anderson. When asked, Anderson acknowledged that Burstein can choose to cash out that comp time at the end of the year.

Mychajliw defended his report, saying his calculation of $86,848 in overtime pay came directly from the county’s accounting system, based upon payments made through Oct. 1.

“Just because the county executive says something is so, doesn’t make it so,” he said.

Mychajliw, a Republican, has been critical of Poloncarz, a Democrat, and his decision to pay COVID-related overtime to his political appointees using federal CARES Act money, which must be spent by the end of 2021.

A report by Mychajliw last January found that $1.3 million was paid to 56 non-union administrators appointed by Poloncarz, including Burstein, in 2020. So far this year, Mychajliw said $139,086 in overtime has been paid out to such appointees, with Burstein accounting for nearly two-thirds of that.

“Prior to COVID, those salaried employees never received one penny of overtime,” Mychajliw said. “So it's very clear that many political patronage employees, including the health commissioner, are abusing a public health crisis to pad their salaries.”

However, Anderson noted Burstein and other appointees are hourly employees, not salaried. The only county employees who are salaried are elected officials: Poloncarz, Mychajliw, the sheriff, district attorney and legislators.

Asked for his response, Mychajliw insisted Burstein is salaried, “and what helps prove this is that she didn’t collect overtime prior to COVID.”

Although Burstein received more overtime than any employee last year, much of the overtime paid out last year was to adminsitiors in the county Sheriff’s Office. Of the 27 administrators who made over $10,000 in overtime last year, 13 worked in the county Sheriff’s Office, according to Mychajliw’s January report.

Democrats in the county Legislature have questioned overtime payments to sheriff’s office deputies. But Mychajliw, who unsuccessfully ran for Hamburg town supervisor with a pro-police platform, has not singled out overtime pay for sheriff’s office workers like he has Burstein.

Anderson referenced the fact Mychajliw himself has been accused of not showing up to work. WKBW-TV reported earlier this year that Mychajliw swiped into his office on average just five workdays a month.

Mychajliw said he plans to issue findings on 2021 overtime compensation for all county employees before he leaves office in January. He’ll be replaced as comptroller by Democrat Kevin Hardwick, who defeated Mychajliw’s deputy comptroller Lynne Dixon.

“Make no mistake: the Erie County executive will control the office of Erie County comptroller,” Mychajliw said. “Kevin Hardwick will not make any decisions, steps, moves without explicit permission from the Erie County executive. He is beholden to him for his job, and he will be nothing more than an employee of the Poloncarz administration, much to the detriment of taxpayers. But that's what taxpayers chose and I respect that decision.”

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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