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East Chicago employees in line for premium bonus

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East Chicago City Hall

EAST CHICAGO — Despite continued conflict regarding which branch of government will guide how funds from the American Rescue Plan Act will be distributed, the City Council has adopted an ordinance that appropriates $1.4 million of that money to go toward a premium bonus for city employees.

Mayor Anthony Copeland told the council in March the city was expected to receive $33.3 million and he hoped a consensus could be formed with the council regarding how that money could be used to invest in infrastructure and in dealing with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

In May, both the mayor and council introduced ordinances involving the receipt and expenditure of the funds. The mayor's ordinance was not adopted by the council.

In late July, the council rejected three out of four ordinances sponsored by Copeland that involved use of the funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The one ordinance that survived — giving bonuses to city employees — was approved on final reading by a vote of 7-2.

The highest amount to be received is a payment of $3,000 for full-time employees with five or more years of service.

A letter from Copeland to all city employees said the money was a reward for extraordinary service and not one day of governmental service was lost during the pandemic because of the commitment of the workers which made sure snow was still plowed, trash continued to be picked up and tests and vaccinations were administered.

"All of the city workers ... during COVID definitely put their life on the line," Councilman Dwayne Rancifer, D-at large, said.

Councilwoman Monica Gonzalez, D-1st, and Council President Emiliano Perez, D-at large, were the only members to vote against the ordinance.

"One of the reasons that I don't agree with this bonus is I don't think it does enough," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said she thinks more money should be given to city workers who live in East Chicago and found fault with the pay structure because people with less than five years of service will receive a lower amount for performing the same job.

Perez said he would support if Copeland would want to give essential workers premium pay using the city's surplus funds, but not with American Rescue Plan Act funds.

"We drafted a document and a process as a body by which to expend those funds," Perez said.

Expenditure of these funds is not the only matter over which the council and administration have been butting heads.

The council last month voted to override Copeland's veto of a resolution that proposes a 2022 operating budget for the council in the amount of over $1.8 million, including $500,000 for litigation services.

Perez said the money for litigation was necessary because the council had no money in its budget for defense when sued by Copeland.

The proposed budget also includes pay raises for both the council attorney and financial advisor and creates a $75,000 position so the council can hire its own secretary.

A letter from Copeland to the council explaining his veto said the budget represents a threefold increase and that state law only permits the council to hire attorneys.

Steve Dalton, who has served as the council's longtime financial advisor, did not attend the most recent council meeting.

Councilman Robert Garcia, D-5th, said the council received an email stating the city won't pay Dalton and the council can't contract with him.

City Council attorney Angela Jones said while there is no statute that permits the council to enter into a contract with anyone other than its attorney, the council's hiring of a financial advisor has taken place for over a decade without being questioned previously.

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