County sticks with sick, vacation pay conversions

County sticks with sick, vacation pay conversions

WARREN — Trumbull County commissioners had a chance to save up to $800,000 Wednesday by amending the sick and vacation conversion program for 675 employees who aren’t union members, but instead voted to continue the program.

A 2017 study of the county’s finances conducted by a volunteer committee recommended the county adjust its sick and vacation leave policy to save money. It was one of numerous suggestions the committee recommended before the county considers raising the sales tax.

The issue has to be addressed in union negotiations for bargaining unit employees, but commissioners could have adjusted or eliminated the program for the non-bargaining employees.

Commissioners in January tabled approval of the plan while Richard Jackson, director of human resources, conducted a survey among department heads — many elected officials like the prosecutor, clerk of courts and auditor — to determine how they would feel about adjustments to the program.

Some were against the changes, while others were OK with it, Jackson said.

The county’s plan on how it handles the program has to be submitted to the state each year by March 31, Jackson said. If the program lapsed, it would disappear, Jackson said.

It was determined it would be unfair to change the plan more than two months into the year, Jackson said.

Commissioners Frank Fuda and Dan Polivka voted to approve the plan with no changes at Wednesday’s commissioners meeting. However, Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa voted “no.”

Commissioners could cap the amount of sick and vacation hours the non-bargaining employees could convert into cash or carry over.

The state doesn’t allow public employees to cash out more than 720 hours at retirement, so many employees start selling back their time after they bank that amount, Jackson said. There are no monetary caps for the county program now.

Cantalmessa said he couldn’t, in good conscience, vote to continue the program with the financial state of the county, which has a 7.7 unemployment rate compared to the 4 percent rate nationally and also is bracing for the effect of the idled General Motors plant.

“I have expressed concern about this issue on several occasions and our auditor has been critical of this plan for some time. We can’t continue to lip service fiscal responsibility and then have our actions contradict that. This is a real issue that requires real action. Cost cutting and cost containment policies are never popular, but it doesn’t make them less necessary. It may be unpopular, but it is the right thing to do,” Cantalamessa said.

Fuda said if Cantalamessa had mentioned in the commissioners’ workshop on Tuesday that he had reservations, Fuda would have tabled the issue until the board settled on a solution. Fuda said he supports adding some limitations, but thought it would be more fair to implement them in 2020. The program shouldn’t be offered to new employees, Fuda said.

“We need to do something, but this is just not the time. We could have tweaked it, we could have discussed that in the workshop (Tuesday),” Fuda said.

Polivka did not respond to requests for comment about his vote.

The 36 non-bargaining unit employees that used the program the most cost the county $350,000 in 2018, and $2.049 million since 2014. The amounts include the payouts the employee received directly, and the cost of increased contributions the county had to make to the Ohio retirement system because of the bump in their income, Jackson said. The county pays the full 23 percent contribution into the employees’ retirement plans, while the state only requires them to pay a portion of it.

The county employees that used the program the most between 2014 and 2018 were Trumbull County assistant prosecutor Chris Becker, who took in $123,325 over the five-year period; vehicle and building operations manager Alfred Devengencie, who took in $94,802; magistrate Alexander Savakis, who took in $92,879; assistant prosecutor Michael Burnett, who took in $88,590; director of Trumbull County Job and Family Services John Gargano, who brought in $88,197; and magistrate and family court administrator Scott Bombeck, who took in $87,128, according to data provided by Jackson.

Four employees used the program to bring in between $70,000 and $80,000 over the five-year period; two brought in $60,000 to $64,000; two brought in $58,000 to $59,000; 15 took in between $40,000 and $50,000; and seven took in $31,000 to $39,900, according to Jackson’s figures.

Becker benefited the most from the program in 2018, with $27,653; Bombeck came in second in 2018 with $18,115. Every year since 2014, Becker benefited the most out of the non-bargaining unit employees, adding at least $21,000 each year.

The program for bargaining and non-bargaining employees cost $1.4 million in 2018, and $6.2 million over the five-year period, with $2 million of that going to the 36 workers who used it the most.

There are 1,600 total county employees, Jackson said.

He said most of the union contract negotiations will begin next year, and the county is likely to try to implement some cost-saving changes in new contracts. The new plan for non-bargaining employees will be worked out this year and employees should be notified of changes for 2020 in September, Jackson said.

The employees using the program aren’t doing anything wrong, but are taking advantage of something that is offered to them, Jackson said.

However, concerns from commissioners and the auditor about the program’s effect on the budget — Cantalamessa said it is 3 to 4 percent of the county’s budget — are spurring the need for change, Jackson said.