CORRUPTION: Free city money for friends’ education
Every elected official that comes into the office of the mayor always pays their campaign members and volunteers with jobs and favors. They range from visible positions in important positions where qualifications are not essential to no-shows where the employee doesn’t have to show his or her face. Yes, we’ve had them.
Some favors are asking for a reversal of a previous denial to land acquisition, or selecting a family member as a public safety official, or placing a friend into a city board, committee, commission, tax forgiveness, funding for homes, lead removal funds, favor that give easements on code enforcement or building enforcement laws, or other programs that the city has in place.
Few elected campaign members or friends, however, received a combination of the above spoil’s benefits. One may get one favor or two, but a combination of two or more has rarely been seen or given by mayors.
Rumbo has been able to find one lucky participant, of a previous mayor, who has benefitted from not only one, or two, but three benefits of having to know the elected official. From a recent public records request, a person was placed into the position of Library Director without any education or knowledge of the library, provided a job that paid an executive-level salary, provided increases along the way, and was paid for a master’s degree while working in the job.
Two years after completing the Library of Science Degree, Jessica Vilas Novas left the city position of Library Director with a Master’s Degree. The public records request was provided with supporting documentation of the prior Director, Jessica (Valentin) Vilas Novas, towards the reimbursement of her Master’s Degree in Library Science, totaling $34,143.50.
The Library Board of Trustees, who is composed of really old people that have nothing to do and just rubber-stamp the mayor’s wishes, decided it was a good idea to provide Ms. Vilas Novas (Mayor Dan Rivera’s good friend and campaign worker) with paid education without adding any language into her Library Director employment contract that would have at least gotten a few more years of work in lieu of receiving a free Master’s Degree.
Getting your educational degree paid for by a company or city hall is a great benefit for any worker who wants to continue his or her schooling. Tuition reimbursement is an added employee benefit, aside from your salary, that a company or organization offers as part of your employment package. However, every company or organization has certain requirements. It can range from working at least 90 days at T-Mobile or Walmart to Home Depot paying for your education immediately as soon as you start work. Simply put it varies.
For example, UPS will pay up to $5,250, Home Depot will pay up to $3,000 per year for full-time employees and up to $1,500 for part-time employees, Verizon will pay up to $8,000 per year, even Chipotle, will also pay up to $5,250 for employees that want to earn a college degree, GED or even study ESL. These are just a few of the companies in our communities within Merrimack Valley that pay their employees to attain an educational degree. This is called Tuition Reimbursement.
But when we look at any of the three last new generations, we find that 53% of university students plan to leave their current jobs after they graduate. Respondents were both part- (34.7%) and full-time (65%) employees who were pursuing a degree. Across the US nearly a third of employees receiving financial assistance from their employer for educational costs still said they’d leave the company when they finish their degree. In Lawrence, where only Fire and Police employees receive educational incentives, no one except Jessica Vilas Novas was as lucky as she.
Municipal tuition reimbursement, on the other hand, has many layers of requirements and varies from City to City and City and their Unions. The City of Lawrence, for example, according to records on their website, a Memorandum of Agreement (MOU) between The City of Lawrence and the SEIU, Local 888 Librarians Union, agreement effective July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2019 Article 30, Section 2 stated the following:
“Tuition Reimbursement. All employees who commenced employment with the City on or before June 30, 2016, shall receive tuition reimbursement in accordance with the following:
The City shall provide tuition reimbursement for courses in Library Science or other library-related courses. The City shall provide funds for this purpose not to exceed three thousand dollars ($3,000) per fiscal year. All employees who commenced employment with the City on or after July 1, 2016, shall not be eligible for the above tuition reimbursement.”
Ms. Vilas Novas was not a member of the SEIU and was hired on a salary of $71,000 which had been increased to $81,000 by the time she left.
Think, too, the City of Lawrence had to deal with their student-worker, who skipped work, or left early to finish school assignments, or looked the other way when working on school assignments while on the clock, or the who changed their work schedule to accommodate coursework. It used to be that employers use to pay for tuition assistance to retain workers. Not here. As soon as Mayor Rivera departed, Ms. Vilas Novas left as well.
I bet that Chief Administrative and Financial Officer Mark Ianello did not report his mayor’s friend to the IRS as receiving income. As you know this is counted as income and Ms. Vilas Novas should have filed appropriately.
In the same public records request, Rumbo asked that the city provide the source of the funding and the relevant budget pages. The source of the funding was the Library’s State Aid account. But you won’t find that in any line item of the city’s budget. So, did the city council ever vote on that expenditure? Makes you think of many unethical things occurring at city hall.
Tuition reimbursement is a great benefit for any eligible employee. However, the one key element that every employee should be aware of when accepting tuition reimbursement is whether or not you are required to stay for a specific amount of time after your tuition has been paid or if you leave before the agreement expires because you might be required to pay the tuition back. The last thing a company or organization wants to see is an employee taking the opportunity to attain a degree and then leave.
Ms. Vilas Nova was known for not having any respect for those rules because her previous employer paid for a bachelor’s degree and she was committed to working a few years to compensate the company for that expense.
Let’s not forget that Mayor Dan Rivera wanted her in his administration and we reimbursed that company for around $15,000 for education attained before becoming a city employee.
Speak with your employer to fully understand how tuition reimbursement works within your company or organization.
Beware Mayor Brian DePeña, I heard that Jessica she wants to return to work for the City of Lawrence. She’s another example of a gold-digger.
My thanks to Carmen García for her research on how tuition reimbursement from different industries works.