As they're cashing out, longtime city employees are cashing in
CHAMPAIGN — For some city employees, retiring can be nearly as lucrative as keeping their job for another year.
As the city downsized during the recession and a number of high-profile retirements came through, payouts to people who have left the city of Champaign's employment within the past five years have topped $2 million. Meanwhile, current employees have accumulated tens of thousands of hours' worth of vacation and sick leave, and if they don't use it, they are entitled to a cash payment when they quit.
Payments to higher-ranking retirees as much as $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 or more are not uncommon. After retiring last year, City Manager Steve Carter collected just more than $100,000 for 1,185.5 hours of paid time off he accumulated during his 28 years.
Middle management can cash big checks when they quit, too. A building safety supervisor was paid $51,862.78 for his 1,116 remaining hours of paid time off. Two public works managers were paid $53,221.07 and $49,271.46. And a police sergeant cashed in his 1,049 hours for $43,670.37.
The trend likely will continue, as some current employees have maxed out their leave hours and some highly-paid managers have topped 1,000 hours of paid time off.
The News-Gazette obtained those numbers from the city of Champaign after filing a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The newspaper repeatedly asked for the same data from the city of Urbana, but that city refused to disclose the payment information citing an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."
The News-Gazette has asked the Illinois Attorney General to review that city's denial.
The payouts are an obligation, said Champaign City Manager Dorothy David.
Not only has the city promised it to its employees in their benefit packages and union contracts, but it also is a matter of keeping the city in a good position to recruit employees in a competitive labor market.
And the separation payouts "are competitive," David said. "Whether we are looking at non-union employees or bargaining unit negotiations, when the city develops its benefits package, just as when we determine what a salary is, we look at the market."
Budgeters anticipate those retirements and plan accordingly, said Finance Director Richard Schnuer. The city included $200,000 in its spending plan this past year to pay employees who quit their jobs.
"We plan for it," Schnuer said. "We do budget a small amount for it, but we do not budget for the entire amount when employees leave the city employment. In most instances, there is a savings because we don't fill the position right away."
When an employee retires, the vacancy creates a budget savings because no one is being paid even though that person's full salary was accounted for in the budget. That salary savings supplements the amount the city budgets for separation pay, Schnuer said.
In other cases, city officials can plan a bit more for specific retirements. Carter and Fire Chief Doug Forsman, for example, announced their retirements well in advance, and budgeters knew they would have larger-than-normal amounts to pay. Forsman ultimately received $11,502.31 for his 157 unused vacation hours.
But in general, the amount the city budgets for retirees is based on historical data regarding employee separation rather than announced retirements.
"Otherwise, in most cases, employees will not give us a year and a half notice that they're going to retire," Schnuer said. "We have found that it's difficult to predict closely the amount."
The payments often are driven by the city's union contracts, which dictate how many paid leave hours employees may accumulate and how much they'll be paid when they leave.
"Every time the city goes to the negotiating table, we are looking to negotiate what is fair compensation both for the employees as well as for the city," David said.
Police officers and sergeants, for example, are contractually allowed to roll over up to 200 vacation hours and up to 1,192 hours of sick leave. They are entitled to payment for all of those vacation hours upon leaving the city's employment, but will be paid for sick leave only if they have at least 20 years of continuous service.
According to the contract, the payout will be between 60 percent and 90 percent of their accumulated sick hours depending on how many hours they have and how much advance notice they give of their plan to retire.
Firefighters can accumulate beyond 200 vacation hours and 1,344 sick hours. They are entitled to payment for all of the vacation hours and, similar to police officers, between 50 percent and 70 percent of their sick leave based on how much they have accumulated.
Public works employees can accumulate between 200 and 400 hours of vacation based on their years of service. They can accumulate up to 1,320 hours of sick leave and be paid for anywhere between 30 and 70 percent of it when they retire.
It would be very hard for city officials to negotiate those numbers down, David said.
"Once the city has agreed to certain economic terms in a contract, it's not easy to go back later and negotiate those regressively," the city manager said.
Some employees may be due for a big check when they leave. David, for example, had more than 800 hours remaining, and Deputy City Manager Joan Walls had accumulated 1,457 hours, according to city records.
City Attorney Fred Stavins, Champaign's longest-tenured employee, had 1,690 available hours of paid leave as of the beginning of this month. He is also one of the city's highest-paid employees.
|Name, Job||Vacation hours||Sick hours||Comp time||Payout|
|Steve Carter, City Manager||465.5||720||0||$101,660.30|
|Holly Nearing, Deputy Police Chief||400||720||40||$70,217.81|
|Tim Wild, Deputy Fire Chief||403.68||688.85||0||$65,900.76|
|Fred Halenar, IT Director||671.41||360||0||$64,935.72|
|Steve Clarkson, Deputy Fire Chief||314.106||661||0||$63,889.05|
|Trisha Crowley, Assistant City Attorney||380.85||663.16||0||$59,014.44|
|Brad Yohnka, Police Lieutenant||385.87||709.99||25.65||$58,661.44|
|Tom Schuh, Public Works Operations Manager||400||627.55||42.5||$53,221.07|
|Chris Bezruki, Human Resources Director||377.32||243.51||0||$39,307.05|
|R.T. Finney, Police Chief||400||43.28||0||$30,889.57|
|Doug Forsman, Fire Chief||157||0||0||$11,502.31|