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Officials' pay raises stir controversy in Royal Oak Twp.

Elected officials in one of Michigan's smallest and poorest communities are facing criticism from residents after approving pay raises for themselves amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The salary hikes, approved by the Royal Oak Township trustees late last month, include a 25% increase for Supervisor Donna Squalls, from $20,000 to $25,000 a year; 87.5% for Clerk Gwendolyn Turner, from $8,000 to $15,000; and 21.4% for newly elected Treasurer Patricia Singley, from $14,000 to $17,000.

All three are members of the township's Board of Trustees; the other four members received per diem increases that will raise their pay from $100 to $125 every two weeks.

The raises come as many people in the township are struggling with job losses stemming from the pandemic, said longtime resident Felicia Royal. She also noted that testing last year by the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner's office found elevated lead levels in some township samples.

“We have lead in our water right now,” Royal said. “So giving them a pay increase, I just don’t understand."

Mishelle Kennedy, who ran against Squalls last year, said the supervisor should have thought about the community before proposing salary increases for elected officials.

"Everybody is struggling and if she only knew that there are seniors in her community where some are only getting $700 a month and others $900 a month, and their kids have to help them pay taxes,” said Kennedy. “This is not the time that you put more stress on your community.”

Royal Oak Township's median household income is $26,406, less than half of the statewide figure, while budget troubles forced the township to operate under a consent agreement with the state from 2014 to 2017. The community, which covers just over a half of a square mile, has about 2,600 residents.

The raises were included in a budget resolution that the township board approved 6-0 at a special meeting held over Zoom on Dec. 28; trustee Karen Ballard was absent.

Some residents argue the raises weren't properly approved because they weren't presented in separate salary resolutions as required under a state attorney general's opinion, according to the Michigan Township Association.

Trustee Deja Vasquez said she and other board members weren't advised by the township's legal counsel that there was anything improper about passing the raises as part of the budget resolution. Vasquez said she and her colleagues are "disappointed that they were misguided" and are seeking legal advice to correct the oversight.

"We always try to conduct business the correct way," she said. "We would never intentionally do anything improper. The people have trusted us with these positions and we take that trust seriously."

The township's attorney, Randall A. Pentiuk, did not respond to messages seeking comment. 

Squalls defended the raises and said the board plans to take up separate resolutions for them at its regular January meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday.

"The individual salary resolutions was an oversight, but they are being prepared now, she said. “For eight years, I've been receiving $20,000 a year for this position and full-time or not, I don’t have hours. “When you are (on) salary, you really don’t have set hours. I always supervise, I’m always on the clock and even before the pandemic, I was always working from home and the office.

“During COVID, I am not sure if you noticed, but the cost of living went up and in the past, Royal Oak Township could not afford to give pay increases, but we are not in a deficit and no one has lost their jobs, and everyone who is on the budget is still continuing to get paid," Squalls said. "So I just didn’t see how an increase would hurt us at the time.”

Pay raise proposals in other Metro Detroit communities have also stirred controversy.

Last month, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners rejected a plan to raise elected officials' salaries by 1% but did approve increased leadership stipends for some officeholders. Also last month, Sterling Heights City Council gave city manager Mark Vanderpool a pay hike of nearly $38,000.

Michael Selden, director of member information services at the Michigan Township Association, said the group urges communities to consider what's happening with residents when considering raises for officials.

“As always when considering salary increases, we remind townships to think about the optics based on what is currently going on in their township and around the state,” he said. “This would be no different with the current pandemic, as they should be considering if this is a good time for an increase or not.”