Lucas County Sheriff James Telb did not have the authority to make nearly $127,000 in unused sick-time payments since 2003 to nonunion employees, according to an opinion released yesterday by the county prosecutor.
Now the question is whether the four people who were paid the money when they retired from the sheriff's office will have to pay it back.
Sheriff Telb said he's meeting Monday with Prosecutor Julia Bates to discuss the issue of repayment. He said it's a possibility that the money will be sought from the people who received it in excess of state law and county policy.
"If there's the potential for recovery, we're going to explore those options," he said.
In the last two years, Sheriff Telb paid four nonunion supervisors about $163,000 in unused sick time when they retired.
Had he followed county policy, which is based on state law, those employees collectively would have received about $36,000.
The county commissioners adopted a policy in 1978, which they updated last month, that allows county employees to be paid for one-third of their unused sick time when they retire. That payout is capped at 320 hours, or 40 work days.
Under state law, unions and governmental entities can strike deals that call for more generous unused sick-time payouts. That's what happened at the sheriff's office. In 2003, the 40-day cap on the sick-time payout was lifted. In an effort to encourage union employees not to call in sick when they weren't, a contract was struck allowing them to cash out 50 percent of their unused sick days without any cap.
In 2004, when the contract with sheriff's office employees was reopened to negotiate health-care benefits, the payout increased to 65 percent of their unused sick time with no limit on the number of days accrued.
Sheriff Telb said he paid his nonunion employees the same benefit because he thought it was only fair to treat them the same way as the union members.
The problem for the sheriff is that state law doesn't allow for higher sick-time payouts outside a union setting without permission from the commissioners or unless the office receives less than 50 percent of its budget from the county's general fund, according to the prosecutor's opinion.
Mrs. Bates said no determination has been made about how the funds will be retrieved.
"At this point, it's speculative and premature to say what posture we'll take in recovering these funds," she said.
While not addressing the sheriff's office's situation specifically, Jennifer Detwiler, a spokesman for Ohio Auditor Betty Montgomery, said in past instances involving improper overcompensation, findings for recovery were issued against the individual and the elected official's bonding company.
Maj. Ron Keel, the most recent beneficiary of the sheriff's sick-time payout policy, said he doesn't plan on paying back the money without a fight. When he retired Sept. 1, he received a check for $47,591, which is about $37,400 more than he would have received under the county policy.
Major Keel said he'll hire an attorney if the county tries to recover the money from him. The major rejoined the sheriff's office in November at his same rank and with his $66,000 salary. He also is drawing a pension. He declined to specify what his pension is, but based on the formula used by the Public Employees Retirement System for law enforcement officials, it probably is in the neighborhood of $40,000.
"I've worked 27 years for the citizens of Lucas County and for the sheriff's office," he said. "I believe I'm entitled to [the sick-time payout]."
The three county commissioners, who doled out the sheriff's $31 million annual budget, want the excess payments returned to the county's coffers.
"If the law says the sheriff paid the money outside the bounds, I want the county made whole," Commissioner Pete Gerken said. "But making the county whole doesn't mean taking the money out of [the sheriff's] budget and giving it back - that's circular."
Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said she'll rely on Mrs. Bates and Sheriff Telb to determine how the money is retrieved but thought the people who received the payouts might be on the hook for it.
"Those are taxpayer dollars, the ruling is now clear, and certainly this policy needs to be followed and adhered to," she said.
Commissioner Maggie Thurber said she was particularly troubled by the payouts because the board added about $758,000 to the sheriff's budget at the end of last year. Like Mr. Gerken, she said the payouts shouldn't be recouped through the sheriff's budget.
"It's like taking money out of your purse and putting it back in your purse," she said.
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