Government

Kane committee seeks policy changes in wake of $58,211 DeVry tuition payments

Surges: Ambiguity should be dissolved ‘so this never happens again’

GENEVA - After a Batavia resident asked officials to explain how $58,211 was paid for one employee’s undergraduate degree, a Kane County committee chairman said they were working on changing the county’s policies so “that ambiguity is dissolved and this situation never happens again.”

Bob McQuillan, of Batavia, spoke to the Human Services Committee Nov. 10, the day after the sheriff and deputies escorted him out of a County Board meeting. McQuillan had gone over his three-minute time limit of public comment, critisizing the payments to DeVry.

“I want to know how this happened and what is being done to have this misspending returned to the taxpayers,” McQuillan said. “The taxpayers deserve the answer.”

Committee Chairman Clifford Surges, R-Gilberts, said their agenda includes addressing changes to the county’s policy on tuition reimbursement and paid training for employees.

“We are not here today to go backwards on this or to seek retribution or repayment,” Surges said.

“We are specifically here today to make sure that if there is ambiguity in our bylaws, constitution, codification, employee handbook – whatever moniker you want to attach to it – that ambiguity is dissolved and this situation never happens again,” Surges said. “And that’s the charge that we’re here for today.”

The issue arose when an audit of the county’s procurement cards – credit cards known as p-cards – revealed 17 payments to DeVry University for one employee over three years. Two of the payments were checks cut directly by the county, with 15 made on the p-card of Information Technologies Executive Director Roger Fahnestock.

Fahnestock has not responded to requests for comment.

The committee is looking at changes to the county’s policies regarding tuition reimbursement and continuing education.

Surges said he was trying to separate the issues into two buckets.

“You have a person in accounting and the IRS rules change and they need to update their credentials,” Surges said, as an example. “I believe we should pay for that person. … That’s different than a tuition program that says, ‘Hey, we want to pay for somebody’s tuition to get their degree.’”

Surges said he asked for Interim Human Resources Executive Director Jamie Lobrillo and staff to consider whether he is correct in the way he is separating the two issues – into two buckets.

“I don’t want us to find ourselves, years from now, looking at something and saying, ‘Why did they leave this so muddy? Why couldn’t it have been clearer?’ I think those two buckets make it clearer.”

Lobrillo said they would separate tuition reimbursement from qualifying work-related education – a term the IRS uses – and what would be considered non-deductible tuition.

If it is required by the employer in order for the employee to keep their current salary or job, it is considered qualifying work-related education, Lobrillo said.

“Our attorneys in the State’s Attorney’s Office or Public Defender are required to get continuing legal education to maintain their law license,” Lobrillo said. “That would be training. That would be covered under our training budget and would not need to have (the) tuition reimbursement policy attached.”

Included in that is education that maintains or improves the skills an employee needs in their present work, or that improves the skills the employee needs to complete job, she said.

What is considered tuition would not qualify, she said.

Education needed to meet the minimal requirements for the present trade or business is considered tuition and does not qualify as training, Lobrillo said.

“Going to law school … would not be covered as training for them to receive their law education that they’re going to need to get a job as an attorney. That is something that qualifies as a minimum requirement,” Lobrillo said.

Also not covered is any part of program of study that qualifies an employee for a new trade or business or for a promotion, she said.

“So it’s outside the scope of your current job – for example – ... a secretary in the State’s Attorney’s Office wants to go get the education necessary to become a probation officer. That would be tuition, not training because it is training them for a different job.”

That is what occurred with the employee in the IT Department.

Records show she was first hired as a receptionist at $12 an hour in 2015, but is now the administrative services manager for the IT Department at a salary of $64,000.

Lobrillo suggested that the committee use the IRS rules to rewrite the county’s policy because those rules are clear and fit with the board’s intention to separate the two issues going forward.

Auditor Penny Wegman, whose office’s audit of p-cards revealed the payments to DeVry, said she did not see a policy suggestion separating county-wide elected officials from employees covered by the County Board.

“The (employee) policy handbook is actually a suggestion for elected officials because we have internal controls – a very big difference,” Wegman said. “The authority for these policies is handled by (the) County Board. The authority for my office, is covered by me.”

Lobrillo said a county-wide elected official can choose to follow the county’s policy on tuition reimbursement or choose to fund it from their own budget.

Lobrillo said she would have an agenda item prepared on proposed policy changes for the committee’s December meeting.