Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) The Montana State Library System awarded more than $244,000 in bonuses to staff that was contrary to state law because auditors said the basis for the awards was not clearly outlined.

Last week, auditors with the Legislative Audit Division told the lawmakers that the individual awards ranged from $1,200 to more than $10,000, and most of the money had come from “unspent personal services budget” during the COVID-stricken years of 2020 and 2021.

Jennie Stapp, the state librarian, told the committee that she and the leadership team within the department, including her and at least two others, made the recommendations, which also included bonuses to themselves.

For example, the audit report notes that during Fiscal Year 2020, Helena supervisors received 6% and remaining staff received 5%. Remote supervisors, meanwhile, received 4% while the remaining remote staff received 3%. In Fiscal Year 2021, that changed and supervisors received a lump sum of $3,500 while staff received $2,500.

Lawmakers’ concerns centered on what looked like arbitrary awards.

Audit staff explained that state law and an operations manual for the state allow certain bonus pay, including housing expenses in some cases and performance bonuses that have specific, measureable targets. However, these bonuses, $112,818 in 2020 and $132,000 in 2021, were given at the end of the fiscal year and not outlined previously.

“Who decides how much to be paid to each individual?” asked Sen. John Esp, R-Big Timber.

“We carefully consider the circumstances and workload of staff surrounding the opportunities to award pay incentives,” Stapp said, explaining that her executive team then forwards those recommendations to the Montana State Library Commission, a separate governance board made up of governor-appointed professionals and citizens.

Stapp also said the leadership recommended pay bonuses to itself.

“That doesn’t smell quite right,” Esp said. “There seems like another way to do that.”

Stapp defended the decisions saying they were based on both “the work load and the work situation.”

“It’s up to the state library commission whether to award that incentive pay,” Stapp said.

“Has the state library commission ever reversed a bonus pay recommendation?,” Esp asked.

“None that I am aware of,” Stapp replied.

“So in other words, it’s the leadership team that is in charge of this,” Esp said.

However, Stapp pushed back during the audit hearing, saying that before the department awarded the money, she had checked with federal grant administrators to make sure the bonuses were allowed and acceptable.

Auditor Leslie Lahti told the Legislative Audit Committee that the library did not establish bonus pay goals because it was uncertain that funding would even be available.

Auditors also said that the state’s library system had awarded bonuses to staff in eight of the previous 12 years.

“Those were not consistent enough to meet the payment criteria,” said Lahti.

Meanwhile, state audit staff said that even if the bonuses met federal standards, it’s still out of compliance with state procedures.

“I would recommend that you develop clear policies and procedures that outline the criteria rather than choosing a team of people who decides who or who doesn’t get bonuses,” Esp said.