NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A high-ranking town official in North Providence has been collecting two salaries, an arrangement that has inflated her pay and appears to violate the town charter, a Target 12 investigation has found.
Maria Vallee, the longtime town controller, has been serving as North Providence’s finance director for the past three years — without giving up her job as controller. Town budget documents continue to list separate salaries for the two positions even though they are held by the same person.
The unusual arrangement helped boost Vallee’s total compensation to $181,000 in the 2019-20 fiscal year — double the amount she’d taken home just four years before. That included a one-time retroactive payout of $34,000 from a recent union settlement; she qualified because one of her positions, controller, is covered by a collective bargaining agreement.
North Providence’s town charter states that any department head who holds two positions can be “paid only for the position paying the highest compensation.”
In Vallee’s case that would be the position of controller, currently listed as paying $78,393, significantly more than the $54,911 listed salary for the job of finance director, according to budget documents reviewed by Target 12.
North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi and Vallee have previously confirmed that she holds both positions and gets both salaries. Vallee even acknowledged it last May under questioning at a Town Council meeting.
In an interview last week with Target 12, Lombardi continued to defend the double salary, and initially said he had no plans to end the practice. He argued it saves North Providence taxpayers money by having one individual do both jobs.
“There’s not one evening you could come here that she’s not here until like 5, 5:30,” Lombardi said. “So she gets the job done.”
He also emphasized the fact that the controller position is a union job, saying, “We can’t get that out of the contract.”
But when Target 12 pointed out to Lombardi that giving Vallee both paychecks appears to violate the town charter’s ban on paying two salaries, the mayor sounded surprised.
“I’d have to check that,” he said.
Hours later, Lombardi called to say he had conferred with Town Council President Dino Autiello and they agreed they would work on transitioning Vallee to serve as only finance director, giving up her membership in the municipal union as controller.
Vallee declined an interview request, saying in an email, “The main reason for this decision is because you have chosen to target me on your report.” She added, “One would ask themselves why the decision to target me specifically?”
As for her current position and compensation as of Monday, Vallee said she is the finance director. “I am compensated for that position at the Finance Directors’ [sic] current salary of $133,304 plus longevity,” she wrote.
(North Providence’s 2020-21 budget puts the current salary for finance director at only $54,911, down from $86,000 as recently as 2017; however, the current base salaries for the finance director and the controller are $133,304 when combined.)
Lombardi, a Democrat who has led North Providence since 2007, said North Providence’s town government is currently running a $15 million surplus, a sign that Vallee is managing its money well. Still, he acknowledged she is getting paid more than the governor, the colonel of the Providence Police Department — or even himself as mayor.
“Based on the finances of the town and where we stand financially, I’m OK with it,” he said.
Punished by US attorney, Ethics Commission over illegal loan
This isn’t the first time Vallee has made headlines in North Providence.
Vallee previously served as the town’s acting finance director from 2007 to 2011, but resigned amid a Rhode Island Ethics Commission investigation into an illegal federal loan she obtained through the town to make home improvements. Prosecutors found Vallee took the money even though she knew she and her husband were not eligible under the program’s income caps.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office ultimately ordered Vallee to repay about $48,000 in loan money plus $78,000 in damages under the terms of a July 2013 civil complaint and consent judgment. She was separately fined $8,000 by the Ethics Commission.
Lombardi declined to fire Vallee over the loan matter, however, keeping her on as North Providence’s controller. And by 2018, he had once again installed her as the town’s acting finance director.
Target 12 had to file multiple requests under the Access to Public Records Act in order to obtain a full picture of how much money North Providence taxpayers have been paying Vallee in recent years. The records show a convoluted patchwork of compensation.
In the fiscal years of 2014-15 and 2015-16, Vallee’s paychecks included a combined $23,000 in overtime. The following fiscal year, in 2016-17, she got about $32,000 in so-called “out-of-rank” pay, which is most commonly used in public safety when a lower-ranked personnel member covers for a higher-ranking one.
(Lombardi told Target 12 he believed Vallee had received the out-of-rank pay because she was also serving as finance director during 2016-17; however, the town’s annual audit for that year lists John McNamee as being the acting finance director at the time.)
Vallee’s base pay shifted higher in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years, coming in at about $100,000 annually. Then in 2019-20, her base pay ballooned 45% to $144,603. She also qualified for the retroactive payout under the union settlement, bringing her compensation for the two jobs to a grand total of $181,246.
It remains unclear how much money Vallee will wind up getting in the current 2020-21 fiscal year, since she did not reveal the total amount of her longevity bonus and the payroll records obtained by Target 12 do not break it out.
However, the records do indicate Vallee’s current base pay rate is $87.89 an hour, putting her on track to make over $150,000 this fiscal year if she is paid for the same number of hours as she was last year.
Aside from the town charter issue, Lombardi expressed no qualms about whether Vallee is earning what she makes.
“I’m not going to stand here and make excuses or deviate from my method of management,” he said.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram