Johnston County taxpayers spent thousands of dollars last Thursday, Aug. 16th to allow approximately 270 employees at the Department of Social Services to enjoy a catered meal then a scavenger hunt with door prizes.
Department of Social Services Director Scott Sabatino, who has been on the job for 4 months, is defending the cost which includes $21,400 in lost wages and the $4,838 meal.
Emails obtained by WTSB News show plans had been underway for weeks by Sabatino and DSS leaders to hold the event during regular office hours. He says holding the event after hours or on the weekend when employees would be off the clock was not an option.
Sabatino received permission from Wayne Black, Social Services Director for the NC Department of Health and Human Services in Raleigh, to close the Johnston County DSS Facility from 12 Noon until 5:00pm Thursday for a “team building training event” at the Johnston County Livestock Arena.
A spokesperson for Black denied giving permission for the closing, however emails obtained by WTSB News suggest otherwise.
Sabatino also received approval in July from the Johnston County DSS Board, whose members include County Commissioner Chad Stewart and School Board Member Todd Sutton. Both Stewart and Sutton were absent from the July meeting and were unaware of the scavenger hunt until being notified by WTSB. Both expressed concern.
At Noon last Thursday, all County DSS Buildings in Smithfield were closed and signs were placed on the entrance doors indicating they had closed for the day.
Employees drove to the Livestock Arena off Highway 210 and were treated to a $4,838 catered luncheon featuring fried chicken, hamburger steak, mash potatoes, green beans, rolls, tea and banana pudding. Sabatino told WTSB News the meal cost $4,300 but a Public Records Request for a copy of the invoice showed it was $538 more. The total cost of $4,838 was paid for out of the “Training Budget” for DSS. Those funds are taxpayers money. No employee training took place that day.
Sabatino said the “team building” including a meal followed by a scavenger hunt where the county employees were divided into 24 teams. Prizes were donated by Wal-Mart and local merchants.
The director said the event, which he also referred to in an email to staff as “Employee Day” was “interaction time with staff” who work in different buildings and may not know one another. “Many people in Building 1 have never met people in Building 4. The training is team building to get to know who is in the agency.”
Sabatino said the training event was mandatory for his employees to attend. If they did not attend workers had to use vacation time to take the afternoon off. A few employees decided not to attend and were forced to use vacation time. Remaining in the office to work was not an option from Sabatino.
State DSS Director Says He Didn’t Give Permission To Close, Emails Suggest Otherwise
The county DSS director defended his decision saying he received approval from the State DSS Director and the County DSS Board.
Cobey Culton, a spokesperson for Wayne Black, the state DSS Director disagreed. “DHHS does not give permission to close county social service offices and does not approve content for county-specific staff training and team-building events. It is required that local agencies make appropriate arrangements to keep emergency services such as child protective services available when such training events are scheduled.”
However, emails obtained by WTSB through a Public Records request show that Black did give permission for the county agency to shut down.
WTSB followed up with Black’s spokesperson for clarification on the emails but they did not respond to our repeated requests for more information.
Sabatino’s email indicated to Black he would also get permission from Johnston County Manager Rick Hester. Hester said he was never asked for permission to hold the event, he was only notified by the new DSS director it was taking place. An email backs up Hester’s statement.
The county manager said the email was not a request for permission, rather notification the event was going to be held. Hester said the DSS Director works at the pleasure of the DSS Board and he has no direct authority over Sabatino.
When asked about the scavenger hunt being held during the workday and at a big cost to taxpayers, Hester responded, ” The employees at DSS do a great job. They have a true passion for the work they do. Meaningful and productive team-building activities are important. Perhaps the session will be evaluated to determine if any changes are needed.”
Low Morale And Pay
Scott Sabatino said the scavenger hunt also had a secondary purpose and that was to boost morale for his 270 employees. Sabatino said the Department of Social Services lacks adequate space for staff and needs a new building. “Because of space we need a new building. We have people in closets and doubled and tripled up in office spaces. Area counties are paying more than we do and the turnover rate is quiet high,” the DSS Director said.
Sabinto said County Commissioners have not funded a new building and would not give his employees more money, so the scavenger hunt was also a way to boost morale for his underpaid staff.
Commissioner Chad Stewart of Four Oaks, a member of the DSS Board, was absent at the July DSS Board meeting when the scavenger hunt was approved. Commissioner Stewart learned of the event from WTSB News. “I was not involved in the decision to close the county office or in setting the training agenda. If the decision was mine, I would not have closed the agency and would have found other ways to provide the necessary training and teambuilding activities,” Stewart said. “I support training and teambuilding activities for our DSS employees. Our DSS employees do a great job. They have a difficult and stressful job because of the nature of their work. We want the most qualified and trained employees to serve our citizens.”
School Board member Todd Sutton, who is also on the DSS Board, said the scavenger hunt was a great idea but added, “I do have a concern for this being conducted during a weekday at the taxpayers’ expense.”
Addressing Sabatino’s statements about low morale Sutton said, “I was not aware of morale being as low as stated by Mr. Sabatino. I knew in the past morale has been an issue. However, since his hiring I have been in contact with staff regarding morale and with the exception of workload had seemed to be getting better.”
When WTSB made a Public Records Request for documents about the scavenger hunt and meal invoice, Sabatino emailed Johnston County Human Resource Director Lu Hickey asking if the documents we requested were public documents.
“Question Is emails to the staff public record or copies of bills public record just curious”
Hickey replied, “Emails are public record as are invoices, bills, etc.”
Sabatino was given the option by the caterer, Stancil’s Grill & Catering of Middlesex, to save $968 in taxpayers money if DSS employees would serve themselves the food. Instead, Sabatino elected to have the caterer serve the food to the DSS staff at the higher cost of $4,838 instead of $3,870.
Approximately 1,080 man hours were lost for the event last Thursday, equal to $21,400 in wages paid to employees. Emails show Sabitino and his staff had been planning for the event for weeks, taking away countless more hours from the department’s task of helping and protecting those most in need. Officials could also not determine how many people showed up at the DSS building for assistance last Thursday only to find the doors locked.
Sabatino said the event ended by 4:00pm. Employees were not required to report back to work. They were allowed to go home for the day.