Compensated absences: A taxpayer swindle
Hernando TodayThe issue: Hernando County government's compensated absence policy.
Published: February 17, 2011
Published: February 17, 2011
Our opinion: When will commissioners finally get rid of this taxpayer rip-off?
It reared its ugly head again in the news several times the past couple weeks: the controversial county policy of compensated absences payouts.
Our question: When will county commissioners finally get the backbone and end this taxpayer rip-off?
What are they waiting for?
During the past couple of years, Hernando Today has documented a number of cases when county employees were either fired, laid off or otherwise left their jobs and were handed a big bag of cash for the vacation and sick time they supposedly didn't take during their tenure with the county.
The policy allows employees to bank vacation and sick time they don't take during the year, which is paid out later at a higher salary when an employee leaves for whatever reason.
We don't even want to get into the accounting of this flawed policy, except to say that it's a lot like the fox guarding the hen house - but these hens belong to the taxpayers.
Four recent cases of this dubious policy have come to light through in-depth reporting by Hernando Today's senior reporter Mike Bates. Those news articles show how ridiculous the policy has become and how commissioners have continued to fail to protect the taxpayers.
The first instance showed how a fired utilities department employee, after being booted out the door for a number of work violations, was then handed a bag of money containing $1,640. He was so disliked in his department that more than 40 co-workers signed a petition to have his work record investigated.
A couple weeks later, another employee, this time in the human resources department, is fired and walks away with more than $2,100.
Pat Fagan, the double-dipping county parks director and school board member, is likely to get more than $20,500 if his job is eliminated by budget cuts. Much of that time was banked when Fagan, who's been with the county for 33 years, was paid a much lower salary. However, he'll cash out at his current salary.
The question isn't whether these three employees should receive the money. It is rightly theirs under the county's policy. The question is: Why are our commissioners so foolish to continue this ludicrous taxpayer boondoggle?
But let's not stop there. Last week, Bates uncovered yet another bit of dirty laundry concerning the compensated absences policy.
Last year, commissioners decided to make every county employee take 10 unpaid furlough days to help get the county out of a budget crisis that continues even more severe to this day.
Come to find out, most of the employees simply took the 10 furlough days as unpaid vacation and then banked 10 days of vacation in their compensated absence pot.
In other words, if an employee usually had three weeks of vacation, he or she simply scheduled 10 days of furlough like vacation days, took another week of vacation and then banked the other two weeks.
While the idea may have saved the county a boatload of bucks last fiscal year, it simply transferred the debt to a future date when all those employees leave their jobs - and quite likely at higher pay levels.
What's even more unfair to the taxpayers is that employees who bank vacation and sick time essentially are paid double time-plus for the hours they worked. They get paid for working those days they didn't take off as well as paid later at a higher wage.
It's a double rip-off.
To put this matter better into perspective, the county owes its employees more than $7.85 million in compensated absences. That number is up from about $7.75 million in fiscal year 2008-09. What that means is that employees are continuing to add to the pot, which most of them will cash in at higher pay levels when they leave county employment.
Here's another big problem: The county doesn't have that $7.85 million. It's an unfunded line item that gets carried over each year. The county budgets a certain amount each year for how much officials think will be cashed in, but there are no millions stashed away that the county owes its employees.
The solution here is simple: Get rid of the compensated absences policy, pay employees what they are currently owed and go to a use-it-or-lose-it policy like most employers provide in the private sector. If you get two weeks of vacation each year and, say, five sick days, you either take all those paid days off or lose them at the end of the fiscal year.
There's no need to bank time off for illness because most employees are offered short-term disability insurance that usually kicks in after a week, which is the number of days most employers give for illness.
The compensated absences policy is a shell game - but we're onto it. Commissioners need to scrap this taxpayer swindle.
Commission Chairman Jim Adkins has asked that the controversial policy be placed on an upcoming board agenda for consideration. Commissioner John Druzbick said employees who are fired should not be entitled to compensation.
A throng of taxpayers will be watching to see how this is played out and if our elected representatives finally do the right thing and end this charade.