Thirteen employees who left the city of Atascadero in the past year have collectively walked away with nearly $403,000 in vacation and sick payouts.
That includes the recent $91,951 vacation payout to former City Manager Wade McKinney. All were allowed to rack up thousands of dollars in banked hours.
A San Luis Obispo County grand jury criticized the city in early 2012 for two decades of ignoring city policies that placed caps on how much vacation and sick time city employees could bank. The practice, grand jurors said in a report, created an unfunded liability for the city.
City officials had discussed the issue, brought to light by former Atascadero Mayor Mike Brennler, before the grand jury report came out. Ultimately, the policy changed last year when the City Council set up two banks for employees’ accrued vacation time: a frozen historic bank and another more modern one that capped bankable vacation at twice the amount each employee would earn in a year, which varies among employees, according to City Manager Rachelle Rickard.
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“Basically, you could go two years without using vacation, and then you’d stop accruing,” she said.
Sick-time agreements with the city’s employee groups didn’t change.
A Tribune review of each departing employee’s vacation and sick-time payouts from June 1, 2012, to June 1, 2013, shows taxpayer dollars took a hit from the historic vacation bank, as well as the new bank.
While the majority of departing employees’ unused vacation hours in the time period reviewed was less than $10,000 per person at the time they left — and three of them less than $1,000 — four employees, including McKinney, cashed out with more than $20,000 each, according to The Tribune analysis.
The analysis showed that aside from McKinney, who left his post Friday after nearly 16 years, the most costly vacation payouts included nearly $75,000 to former Director of Community Services Brady Cherry, who left after almost 19 years; almost $38,300 to former Deputy Director of Public Works Geoff English, who left after nearly 23 years; and about $22,000 to former Assistant City Manager Jim Lewis, who left after about eight years, according to city records.
In addition, those four employees received sick-time payouts, which together totaled $138,037, records show.
Employees who leave the city in good standing can cash out half of their remaining unused sick time after five years on the job if they’re executive management, management or “confidential” employees who work with sensitive information such as those in payroll and the City Manager’s Office, according to Acting Administrative Services Director Jeri Rangel.
For vacation, most employees earn hours at a rate that varies based on their years of service, Rangel said.
Total payout sums for each of the 13 employees, which can include other forms of compensation such as holiday pay, were not included in The Tribune’s review.
Even with such large vacation and sick-time payouts, city leaders say they aren’t as much of a concern as the grand jury and other critics have suggested.
“Salary savings from changes more than offset the leave payouts in a typical year,” Rickard said.
Typically, when an employee leaves, the city budgets for savings by replacing a longtime staffer with a successor at a lower rate or by keeping some positions vacant for a length of time to offset the payout, she added.
Critics, such as Brennler, have long argued against the city’s position on the matter.
The grand jury report last year said Atascadero had 116 employees with an unfunded liability of $887,320. The average vacation time accrued per employee was more than 218 hours — approximately 27 days — and was said to be the second-highest total in the county, trailing the city of Paso Robles.
An updated figure was not available Tuesday.