Humboldt County Courthouse and government offices. | File photo.

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As the county looks to outsource its payroll and time management duties to an independent contractor — at a cost of roughly $360,000 per year — deputy sheriffs say their paychecks have been riddled with errors lately. 

Jamie Barney, president of the Humboldt Deputy Sheriffs Organization (HDSO), recently told the Outpost that he’d heard rumors about mistakes in the payroll department that prompted stern emails from the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS). 

On Friday we reported that the county has accrued more than $60,000 in late fees from that state agency. The charges were laid out in an email from a CalPERS collection agent to Chief Administrative Officer Amy Nilsen and Payroll Services Manager Katherine Lourenzo.

Barney said he hadn’t seen that email but was concerned about it nonetheless. “If what I’ve heard is correct, then we should have been notified about what mistakes have been made, what kind of mistakes and how it affects the members of HDSO,” he said.

The 130-odd members of that union include sheriff’s deputies, probation officers and district attorney investigators, and according to Barney they’ve seen an unusual number of errors on their paychecks over the past six months or so. 

“I think the county’s working on it, but they’ve had trouble doing basic payroll without mistakes for our members,” he said. Some have been overpaid, only to have the the county demand an immediate return of the overage, while others have been underpaid and forced to wait for what they’re due, Barney said.

There have been an estimated 70 mistakes on HDSO paychecks per pay period lately. “It’s frustrating for employees,” Barney said. 

It has been about sixteen months since the county took payroll duties away from the Auditor-Controller’s office and assigned them to the Human Resources Department. The staff report at the time noted that an independent consultant had recommended the move. 

That consultant, Cooperative Personnel Services – Human Resources (CPS-HR), concluded that payroll was “a noticeable challenge for the office.”

The report came less than a year after Karen Paz Dominguez, then the assistant auditor-controller, bypassed her boss with a direct plea to the Board of Supervisors, telling them her department was woefully understaffed and overworked, leaving the county vulnerable to mistakes and potential fraud. 

The county moved payroll to the HR Department on Election Day 2018. This was roughly five months after Paz Dominguez had been elected to the top job in her office, Auditor-Controller, though she was on maternity leave at the time the decision was made.

Some have questioned whether moving payroll to HR was wise. The 2018-19 Civil Grand Jury Report, for example, recommended that the Board of Supervisors have the Auditor-Controller’s office conduct an audit of HR’s new payroll office. The Grand Jury also suggested that the board should review its decision to move payroll there in the first place. 

The board responded that neither of those recommendations would be implemented. Reviewing its decision to move payroll was “not warranted,” the board said. The decision “arose out of extensive review and evaluation and remains the best course of action at this time,” the board’s response said.

Last June, however, another independent consultant, CliftonLarsonAllen, LLP, noted in a report to the county that “the transfer of the payroll department to human resources could present a greater risk of errors and irregularities going undetected.”

Reached by phone, Paz Dominguez told the Outpost she was upset by the recent CalPERS email. “Sixty-two thousand dollars is not chump change,” she said. “That’s a whole position, a person who could help us or another department.”

Paz Dominguez said Interim Human Resources Director Kelly Barns is very capable. “We both struggle with short staffing in our departments,” she said. “We’re not necessarily better than any other department. We’re all using the resources we have.”

In an email to the Outpost, Humboldt County Deputy Administrative Officer Sean Quincey said the county can’t comment on any specific payroll situations, such as the problems with the HDSO paychecks, but speaking generally he suggested that the plan to outsource payroll duties to the firm ADP may help prevent mistakes in the future. 

“ADP has a process that will make it easy for employees, department heads, and payroll staff to track time so that errors can be avoided,” Quincey said.

As we noted on Friday, the Board of Supervisors had previously approved a request for proposals (RFP) for payroll and time management services but last week decided to take a more immediate approach — awarding the contract directly to ADP. 

Asked how the county could bypass standard purchasing policy, which calls for an open bidding process, Quincey explained, “ADP has existing contracts with other public entities that would justify moving forward without an RFP via a cooperative purchase agreement.”

He added that the county has already interviewed numerous vendors, including ADP, and assessed multiple products. Openly asking for this contract was deemed “the most transparent approach” in this situation, Quincey said.

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will hold its regularly scheduled meeting tomorrow — Election Day! — beginning at 9 a.m. in supervisors chambers at the Humboldt County Courthouse. This particular item is currently on the consent calendar, which means it might not get discussed at all.