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Miami-Dade’s clerk launching an audit on county paycheck errors. (He had one, too.)

By DOUGLAS HANKS/dhanks@miamiherald.com

Well before messing up compensation for county commissioners, Miami-Dade’s payroll arm was over-paying hundreds of employees a month after the launch of a $66 million administrative software system.

Now, the county’s new clerk — who himself had to repay $2,555 in excess compensation — said this week he’s launching an audit of Miami-Dade’s payroll system to see what’s causing the problems with INFORMS, a software upgrade the county purchased in 2018 to replace an aging digital bookkeeping, purchasing and payroll technology.

“As a watchdog over the county’s finances, it’s my duty to go down this rabbit hole,” said Juan Fernandez-Barquin, a former Republican member of the Florida House appointed clerk in June by Gov. Ron DeSantis. “We owe it to the taxpayers, and we owe it to our county employees.”

READ MORE: Miami-Dade mistakenly paid a county commissioner an extra $1,000 a week. Nobody noticed

As Fernandez-Barquin prepares to hire auditors, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava this week moved out the county’s long-time Human Resources director and put her deputy in charge of the department.

Arleene Cuellar, Human Resources director since 2013, will take on an advisory role focused on workplace policies while her deputy, Melanie McLean, takes over the department during a search for a permanent replacement, Levine Cava said in a memo to commissioners on Wednesday. There was no reason given for the change.

With more than 30,000 positions, county government is the second-largest employer in Miami-Dade, behind the school system

In an interview, McLean confirmed the INFORMS transition brought more overpayments for employees than was typical before the system went live last summer. But she said many of the problems stem from employees and managers not being familiar with the new system, rather than software flaws that need major fixes.

“Part of it is the learning curve,” she said. “We’re a large organization with over 30,000 employees. You are going to go through a stabilization period” with a change as sweeping as the INFORMS upgrade.

County data show a small portion of the employees Miami-Dade pays every two weeks receive too much money. A chart of “Overpayment Counts” per pay period produced by Human Resources shows the number ranging between 200 and 500 employees on most dates, with a rare spike to 1,560 one day last fall. Even the highest level amounts to just 5% of payroll, with the more typical numbers falling below 2%.

But the chronic payroll issues have become a source of frustration for county workers and the unions that represent them. Employees who are overpaid must refund the money, resulting in payment plans that reduce checks by $50 for every two-week pay period. There are also instances of employees getting shorted by the new INFORMS system after the payroll component launched last summer.

“These are people living paycheck to paycheck,” said SeAdoreia Brown, president of the AFSCME Local 199 union, one of 10 labor units representing Miami-Dade workers. “INFORMS is a nightmare. That’s one thing all 10 of the unions and department directors can agree on.”

She said underpaid employees stuck with paychecks too low had to wait nearly two weeks for Miami-Dade’s payroll system to make up the difference, leading to unpaid bills and late fees for workers counting on payday to cover their expenses.

A new system

After receiving multiple bids in 2018 under then-Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Miami-Dade signed a $48 million contract with the firm Accenture in 2018 to create what became the INFORMS system. Implementation took longer than expected and the contract expense grew, with commissioners in June approving the latest $8.6 million extension to bring the total cost to $66 million.

In February, Ed Marquez, who served as chief financial officer under Levine and Gimenez, told commissioners the INFORMS system was needed to replace out-dated technology that launched in the late 1970s. He said the roll-out brought problems but that the county was working through the bugs toward a far more modern system in a government that spends more than $10 billion a year.

“We’re in a process that is complicated,” he said. “But it is being worked on. It is being improved.”

The Levine Cava administration said an average pay period now has about 250 employees overpaid, compared to an average 60 before INFORMS went into effect.

Paycheck errors got attention at the highest levels of county government recently when the Miami Herald reported on Aug. 17 that a Miami-Dade commissioner, Roberto Gonzalez, erroneously receiving $34,000 in extra compensation over a mistake that went unnoticed for eight months. Gonzalez also called for an independent audit of county payroll after the mistake, and Levine Cava instructed county auditors to look into the problem, too.

News of the Gonzalez error, blamed on a county staffer entering the wrong information and not INFORMS, was followed by Miami-Dade acknowledging it had also under-paid by nearly $8,000 the five commissioners elected in November.

Fernandez-Barquin said he’s using his authority as clerk to hire private auditors to look into the payroll system with instructions to randomly select paychecks from across the bureaucracy and examine them for errors. He said he did not yet have an estimate for how much the audit would cost.

Since taking office on June 9 after the death of longtime Clerk Harvey Ruvin, the former Republican member of the Florida House has positioned himself as a watchdog of county finances as he prepares to run for a full four-year term as clerk in 2024. Though Ruvin just went by clerk, Fernandez-Barquin expanded his title to include the position of “comptroller” as well.

Florida law grants county clerks the title of comptroller because of the financial powers they wield in county government, though Miami-Dade’s charter splits that authority with the mayor. However, the Miami-Dade clerk assumes full control of county coffers after the 2024 elections as Florida’s Constitution requires a shift of powers from the mayor to constitutional offices, including sheriff and tax collector. That shift will include a transfer of the payroll department to be fully under the clerk’s authority, as well as the Finance Department.

Fernandez-Barquin said following the reporting on the Gonzalez error, county staff notified him he had also been over-paid through a mistake involving an expense allowance granted elected officials. Like Gonzalez, Fernandez-Barquin said he wanted to repay the outstanding amount all at once. He showed an image of a check he wrote to Miami-Dade County on Aug. 24 for $2,555.27 after what he said was a challenge to quickly pay his refund to the government.

“I said I’m bringing my checkbook over. We’re resolving this,” Fernandez-Barquin said. “I basically camped out at the Finance Department.”