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Take a load off

Atascadero is allowing its employees to hoard thousands of hours of vacation time

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The explanation was simple. In some ways, it was even more simple than the question: Why were some Atascadero employees allowed to hoard enormous amounts of vacation time, far more than city rules allow?

“We have not in 20 years enforced that section of the code,” City Manager Wade McKinney said at the Sept. 27 City Council meeting.

He was talking about the personnel rule that restricts city workers from stockpiling vacation time.

“The city attorneys and frankly the special personnel counsel we have used have advised us that we can’t enforce that rule because the rule has not been enforced,” he concluded, prompting confused looks from nearly everyone listening in the City Hall chambers.

A review of Atascadero city records reveals that at least 22 employees have been piling on vacation time in violation of city rules.

These employees have compiled more than 8,000 vacation hours over the limit. If those hours were ever cashed in, it would cost the city more than $400,000.

City personnel rules state “employees shall cease to accumulate vacation once their accrued vacation balance has reached two times the current annual accrual.” This means that, for example, if an employee is allowed 120 hours of vacation a year, he or she is allowed to accumulate 240 hours of vacation time. Then the number is capped.

But no one has enforced that rule in decades, McKinney told the council, so the city is obligated to pay for all of an employee’s accumulated leave time upon retirement.

“The way it works is that employees are entitled to our past practices,” McKinney told New Times. “We would have to meet and confer [in labor negotiations] with the employees to create a new vacation rule.”

He said the topic hasn’t been a “negative issue to us” because the city has been able to pay off vacation time as employees retire, and that amount has been well within the budget for personnel costs. McKinney said this process is cheaper than if employees actually took their full vacation time, because the city doesn’t have to pay benefits for vacation time not taken.

City documents show that the city was worried about the issue in 1998 when the vacation liability was a fraction of today’s liability. For reasons that are unclear, no one did anything about the situation then.

The city personnel rules state:  “Accrual limits are established … to avoid the financial liability associated with large leave balances. Department heads are responsible for reviewing department leave balances on a regular basis.”

In a curious twist, the city manager’s office is the epicenter of many of the highest number of accumulated vacation hours. McKinney and assistant to the city manager Marcia McClure-Torgerson have between them accumulated more than 1,600 hours of vacation time over the city’s limits, the equivalent of 40 weeks of paid work.

Former councilman and mayor Mike Brennler, who’s been a frequent critic of the city administration, has brought up the issue many times in public meetings. Since May, Brennler has bombarded the council with questions about the vacation time.

“In this day and age it’s inconceivable that this could go on,” Brennler said. “The city is facing big financial problems, and this is ignored.”

Atascadero had to deal with a $2.1 million deficit this year and has been cutting back to try to restrict spending.

McKinney told the council at a May meeting that the city didn’t have the money to pay off all the built-up vacation time, something he said had to be done before reforming the way the city handles the issue. The council said at the time that the issue would be dealt with in the “near future” when personnel policies are revised.

McKinney told New Times the problem will be dealt with this month.

Until the latest round of budget cutting, the City Council has been generous in its outlays to city employees. The council has been munificent in its contracts with city executives and has laid out more than $500,000 in financial settlements and payouts to employees, including a $126,000 payment to its departing police chief, Jim Mulhall.

The City Council seems irritated at Brennler’s continuous public comments about the issue—especially his habit of adding up the price of the excess vacation time that has accrued since the council was alerted to the problem in May.

“I just wanted to state for the record,” Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi said at the September meeting, “this is the 10th meeting where Mr. Brennler has asked the same question. I believe the answer has been fairly similar each time. Let’s hope we can set a date for the financial committee [to deal with this] so Mr. Brennler can have this issue resolved.”

Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald can be reached at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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