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Published: Thursday, 1/27/2005

Repaying sick time may affect others

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The seven Lucas County Sheriff's Department employees who have been asked to repay sick-time payouts they improperly received may not be the only county employees who will be asked to get out their checkbooks.

County Prosecutor Julia Bates sent a letter yesterday to the state auditor asking for a review of whether other county employees may have received improper sick-time payouts after they retired.

The issue is whether certain employees received payouts for 40 days of accrued sick time rather than the 30 days that is allowed by state law.

In 1978, the commissioners approved a resolution allowing sick-time payouts to be capped at 40 days instead of 30. The resolution language appears to be specific only to the employees of the commissioners and boards falling under their authority - not employees of individual elected officeholders, Mrs. Bates said.

If state Auditor Betty Montgomery's office determines that is the case, the prosecutor said county officeholders who receive more than 50 percent of their budget from the county's general fund were required to obtain a resolution approved by the commissioners if they wanted their employees' sick-time payouts to be capped at 40 days rather than the 30 days allowed by state law.

Mrs. Bates, whose office follows the more stringent 30-day sick-time payout, wants the state auditor to determine whether any county officeholders were allowed to simply adopt the commissioners' policy or should have abided by the state law requiring a resolution from the commissioners. She is asking for a six-year review because the statute of limitations would bar going after money that may have been improperly paid out before that period.

"I don't want to have to engage in a collection process involving every county board, commission, agency, and elected official that I represent if, in fact, there were payouts using the county policy of 40 days as opposed to the state law of 30 days," Mrs. Bates said. "I want some definition before we go further."

County Auditor Larry Kaczala said he does not know how many people would be affected if the determination is made that the former employees should have been paid only for 30 days rather than 40 days. But he speculated that hundreds of nonunion employees or union members who have no sick-time payout provision in their contracts may be involved.

Mr. Kaczala said he thinks every officeholder assumed the 40-day policy adopted by the commissioners' office applied countywide.

"Everyone read that resolution as the county policy," he said.

Until 1990, that was no problem because individual officeholders had the ability to set their own payout levels. In 1990, however, state law changed to require that officeholders get a resolution from the commissioners to deviate from the 30-day caps if they received more than 50 percent of their budget from the county general fund.

If specified in their contracts, union members also can depart from the state law restrictions. That is what happened at the sheriff's office. Starting in 2000, union members started to get sick-time payout checks that covered more than the 30 days of accumulated sick time contemplated by state law, but there were still caps. In 2003, the caps were lifted; so large checks started to be issued.

Sheriff Telb also gave his nonunion, supervisory employees the same sick-time payout benefit. But without a resolution from the commissioners, Sheriff Telb had no authority to do so under state law, according to an opinion issued last week by Mrs. Bates.

Since 2000, it appears the sheriff paid seven employees about $160,000 in excess of the county's 40-day policy. That dollar amount could grow larger if it's determined that the former employees only should have been paid for 30 days rather than 40 days.

Sheriff Telb said yesterday that he thinks it is only fair that other payouts be reviewed as closely as his have been. "If we're being told we have to repay the money, and some other county office paid more money [than allowed], that needs to be looked at too," he said.

Clerk of Courts Bernie Quilter said nonunion members in his office receive 40 days of their accumulated sick time when they retire because the commissioners' policy has been followed. He said that's the way it was when it took office in 1999.

"The way I look at it is every one of those county policies that comes out relate to my employees because they're all county employees," he said. "If we were misinformed on a little technicality, we'll deal with it."

Mr. Quilter wrote a proposed resolution yesterday that would, if approved by the commissioners, make the 40-day cap policy official. It's likely unnecessary, though, because the commissioners amended their 1978 policy in December so all county employees are covered regardless of whether they work for the commissioners.

Whether employees who retired from Mr. Quilter's office and other county offices will be told they have to repay any extra money they received remains an unanswered question for now. Commissioner Maggie Thurber said she thinks it's appropriate for Mrs. Bates to ask for Ms. Montgomery's office to clarify the issue.

"I think if in the long run it saves county taxpayer dollars, these are questions that need to be asked and they need to be answered, and we need to abide by the advice we're getting from the state auditor and our prosecutor," Ms. Thurber said.

Jennifer Detwiler, a spokesman for Ms. Montgomery, said the auditor's office will review Mrs. Bates' request when it's received and decide how to proceed. She said it's possible it may be referred to the office's special audit task force.

Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said the commissioners will send a letter to all county officeholders asking them to review their sick-time payout procedures to make sure they comply with the county policy.

Contact Dale Emch at:

daleemch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6061.



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