By Jennifer Gollan
A former military man with a strong work ethic, C. William Hargett Jr. seldom took a sick or vacation day in more than 12 years as Pompano Beach city manager. When he retired in 2007, the city had to pay him $144,611.85 for 1,540 hours in unused time.
Hargett defended the city's accrued time policy as a way to encourage good attendance and attract top talent.
Although Pompano Beach now faces a $4 million revenue shortfall, "when we did this deal, it was not 2009 and an economic recession," he said. "That was what we agreed to."
Broward County and most of its municipalities owed roughly 19,000 of their staffers more than $191 million for unused sick and vacation days as of Sept. 30, 2008, the latest records available, a Sun Sentinel investigation has found. The bill for some of them may come due much sooner than anticipated if the economic crisis forces local governments to lay off workers.
"If we have to lay people off, they will all cash out their leaves and you will have more payouts," said John Pryor, Broward County's accounting division director. That will further strain budgets at a time when governments can ill afford it, local officials say.
These payouts are a ballooning expense for taxpayers because the sums build from year to year, with some local governments paying their workers in today's dollars for vacation time they actually accrued when they earned less.
The sums can be hefty. For example, former Sunrise City Manager Patrick Salerno last year received $466,708 for his unused time when he resigned after nearly 18 years on the job. It was the largest payout in the county in the past five years. Salerno could not be reached to comment, despite three messages left at his home.
Southwest Ranches and Lazy Lake are the only two local governments that do not allow workers to roll over any time from year to year, primarily to save money. Hillsboro Beach allows workers to carry over sick time, but not vacation days.
By contrast, the private sector generally imposes a use-it-or-lose-it policy and some warn that cities need to follow suit.
If governments continue to allow employees to accrue unused time, "more taxes will be passed on to pay for the deficits," said Kim Stattner, an expert on absence management for Hewitt Associates, an Illiniois-based human resources consulting service.
Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a nonpartisan government watchdog group based in Tallahassee, called the benefits "excessively generous."
"We are paying them millions of dollars when we can't provide teachers with more competitive wages or provide care for low-income citizens. It is so out of touch with the way taxpayers have to live," he said.
Some cities are starting to rethink the benefits for new hires.
"To keep [costs] from spiraling in the future, we need to talk with the unions," said Phil Rosenberg, director of human resources in Miramar, which owes about 830 workers nearly $13 million in accrued pay.
Fort Lauderdale Is your Fort Lauderdale restaurant clean? - Click Here., Hollywood and Pembroke Pines said they may also consider it.
"Everything is up for discussion because we are looking at potential revenue shortfalls," said Matt Little, a spokesman for Fort Lauderdale, which owed more than 2,300 workers about $16 million. That is nearly equivalent to this year's budget for the city's parks division, which totals $17.2 million.
Local governments vary as to how many hours they allow workers to accumulate. Payouts are based on a formula that takes into account years of service, pay and various union contracts.
Broward County allows most of its employees to roll over up to 280 vacation hours from year to year and cash out at full pay. There is no limit on sick time - which is paid out at half the rate of an employees' most recent salary when they leave.
Yet the Broward County Property Appraiser's office has a more stringent policy, which allows employees to carry over about 113 hours of vacation from year to year. The maximum they may cash out when they leave is 225 hours. There is no limit on the amount of sick time they can accrue and cash out, but for the employees who qualify, it is generally paid out at 25 percent of their current rate of pay.
"Vacation. You're supposed to use it. You're not supposed to hoard it for a second retirement," said Broward County Property Appraiser Lori Parrish, who tightened accrual policies when she took up her post in 2005. "For sick days, everybody catches an occasional cold. But it's not the government's job to fund benefits that exceed the public's. I also don't want to book that kind of debt in tight budget times."
Jeff Marano, senior vice president of the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, defends the benefits as just reward for public servants.
"If an officer called in sick, and someone was called in to replace him, the city would be paying time and a half," he said. "It is the industry standard [in the public sector] that people are allowed to accrue vacation time. The private sector probably has a much better package and they are not shot at."
But compensation analysts disagree over whether civil servants earn less than their counterparts in the private sector, especially when retirement benefits are considered. While few private companies still offer traditional pensions, they are widely used in the public sector. Under these plans, retirees receive monthly payments, instead of payouts subject to market fluctuations.
Even some city leaders acknowledge the benefits are a legacy from a different era.
"Previously, government employees' salaries were less, now they are more competitive," said Pembroke Pines City Manager Charles Dodge. "They were benefits that the bargaining units negotiated years ago. In the last three or four years, we haven't been recruiting employees, in fact we have been downsizing. We have never had a problem retaining employees."
Copyright 2009 The E.W. Scripps Co. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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