Hernando County's compensated absences policy reinforces the public view of government extravagance, arrogance and indifference to the taxpaying public.
As Hernando Today reported in its recent "Braking the Budget" investigative series by reporter Mike Bates, it's yet another example of how our county government has lost touch with its purpose and responsibility.
In 2007, county commissioners approved a new policy that was even more generous than the previous one, allowing workers to essentially get paid more than double for the same work time. It provides a built-in incentive for employees to not report time off in order to receive cash payouts at a later date. The time earned at a lower rate of pay is paid out at the employee's current higher rate of pay. Every raise makes the "banked" time more valuable and, as the years to by, grows exponentially.
There are also questions about accountability and accuracy in the recording of the time involved. No one seems to be minding the store.
It also seems that department managers have taken the most advantage of this program. Eight of them have accumulated $154,026 to date, which is quite a sizable bonus account at the expense of the taxpayers.
This type of generosity is not the norm in the private sector. The number of days granted and holidays given far exceed the majority of what private-sector employers receive. Mind you, this has nothing to do with the generous retirement payments taxpayers' also shoulder for county workers each year.
Budget Director George Zoettlein, who has accumulated nearly $31,000 in his compensated absences stash, went so far as to say that the $4.5 million accrued booty was only on the books to satisfy the auditors - an incredible statement considering his position.
It's there because it is a liability that the county is incurring and increasing every year - to the tune of an additional $2.3 million next year, and so on an so forth as this taxpayer pickpocket policy is allowed to continue.
Obviously, it's not theoretical when a big bag of money was handed to former human resources director Barbara Dupre, who was forced to resign under a cloud of controversy earlier this year. (Ironically, she essentially wrote the new PTO policy that commissioners so eagerly adopted and she administered. Hmmm?) It wasn't imaginary when fired emergency management director Tom Leto got the boot but walked away with a stack of compensated absences cash. And it's wasn't a fairytale when longtime county employee Frank McDowell retired as code enforcement director after 23 years of service and cashed in big time.
It was the taxpayers' hard-earned money, and that's what our county leaders apparently have forgotten. It's our money, not theirs, and we'd like to keep it in our pockets - especially during these troubling economic times of skyrocketing fuel costs and overall rising consumer prices.
While we believe that county employees should be fairly compensated, the current paid time off policy is unfair to the taxpayer. County employees have more benefits than most other employees in the county. When health benefits, vacation and sick time, paid holidays and retirement are factored in, working for county government is a pretty good gig compared to private-sector employment here.
County commissioners have to shoulder the blame for allowing this policy to happen and continue. They have to set an example of being responsible for money that they take each year from the taxpayers of Hernando County. They must set the bar for accountability and responsibility much higher.
The off-track culture of county government demands change and taxpayers are screaming for it. Where is the leadership to right the ship?
Government exists to serve the public, not the other way around. We believe that government employees should be fairly compensated for their labors, and we know that they are. However, this policy goes beyond fair and equitable compensation and is nothing more than a raid on the public treasury with little to no accountability.
There should be an immediate review and change of this policy during the current budget cycle, and no longer should this "deferred compensation" plan be tolerated. Unless required by the county to forego a vacation, employees should use their generous time off or lose it like most private-sector workers.
With plans to increase parks and recreation fees to the general public, it would make a lot more sense for commissioners to nix this program to provide funding for the kinds of basic services that taxpayers expect for their hard-earned dollars.
With the budget getting tighter each year, taxpayers simply can't afford this kind of largess by our elected leaders. Which begs the question: Are they leaders or followers of a system that needs to be corrected?
To his credit County Administrator David Hamilton has made some long overdue changes and proposed some much-needed realignment of county government. County commissioners should support these efforts and search for ways to make county government more efficient and more responsible to the taxpayers.
Eliminating the compensated absences program would be a good place to start.