County seeks comp time fix

Although the county’s current financial position appears solid on the surface, a deeper look at the ledgers shows an organization still hamstrung by a handful of financial challenges, including nearly $700,00 in accrued compensated absences bogging down the books.

“It’s disingenuous to say, ‘we’re on budget in this department,’ when your not; you’ve comped it out,” said J.R. Ford during a county finance work session.

Ford was referring specifically to county staff’s practice of leaving accrued compensated absence (commonly called “comp time”) dollars off departmental budget documents, despite county records showing many departments could take a serious financial hit if certain employees decided to leave the organization and cash out their comp time.

As a case in point, as of Dec. 31, 2008, the sheriff’s detention department carried $122,112 in accumulated comp time liability. Add the $122,112 to other sheriff’s department totals, and the sheriff’s office alone carries $229,831 in accumulated comp time liability.

“I became aware of the comp time issue when I took office,” said Sheriff Peter Gonzalez. “It was something I inherited. The past administration allowed many in the department to accumulate an incredible amount of comp time, in excess of what was allowed. Many employees saw it as a golden parachute. The first thing I did when I took office was to not allow one more hour of comp time to be earned. What’s killing us is the excess comp time, not the comp time allowed under the policy.”

Gonzalez explained the current policy allows employees to earn up to 240 hours of comp time, but not all managers, department heads and elected officials have honored the cap. Gonzalez said a forthcoming policy proposes to cut the comp time allowance to 120 hours.

A look at the records, however, indicates the problem extends beyond the sheriff’s office. For example, and by the end of 2008, road and bridge administration and maintenance departments have racked up $90,703 in accumulated comp time liability, while the information systems/GIS department tallied $45,293.

Further review shows the problem touches virtually every department for a countywide total of $693,220, thus revealing a systemic and long time practice of allowing extraordinary accumulations of comp time — a problem allowed and exacerbated by lax past commissioner oversight and a failure of past and present department heads and elected officials to enforce a policy drafted to prohibit excessive comp time accumulations.

In fact, auditors with Wall, Smith, Bateman & Associates noted an inordinate amount of accrued comp time, relative to the organization’s size, in their recent audit.

Archuleta County Commissioner Clifford Lucero decried the practice of county leadership allowing employees to bank comp time for use as a “golden parachute” when the employee leaves the organization.

And therein lies a significant difference between the past and present boards and county finance staff.

First and foremost, Archuleta County Finance Director Don Warn has calculated comp time by department, and in some cases, by the individual, to the penny. By contrast, past county financial practices of pillaging one county fund to pay another, led to an administration and board of county commissioners grossly ignorant of true fund balances and cash on hand, let alone accrued comp time dollars and other liabilities.

Second, Warn and Archuleta County Administrator Greg Schulte have made each department head and elected official aware of their departmental liability, and collectively, Schulte said, leadership within the organization is seeking strategies to solve the problem.

“Are we exceeding our budget? In this case, ‘yes,’” said Schulte. “Our intent in 2009 is to bring it (accrued compensated absences) down so that it adheres to our policy. The key is to stop it moving forward, and keep it within acceptable limits.” Schulte said.

To keep further accumulations of comp time in check, Schulte said staff and the board are exploring a variety of possibilities.

Among those possibilities Schulte said, was the adoption of a revised personnel policy that deals, in part, with comp time accumulations, allowances and limits. Unfortunately, and for now, however, the revised document lies unsigned and impotent because department heads and elected officials disagreed with a part of the policy drafted to cure dysfunction and acrimony between former commissioners Robin Schiro, Ronnie Zaday and commissioner Bob Moomaw. With the disagreeable portion of the policy slated for removal, Archuleta County Commissioner John Ranson said he was optimistic the document will earn approval.

Second, the commissioners, in conjunction with Warn and Schulte, are exploring the creation of a reserve fund that could weather future comp time payouts, in addition, they are considering whether to factor compensated absences into the 2010 budget.

Third, Warn said department heads have been asked to encourage and allow employees to take time off in order to whittle away at accrued balances.

In addition, and as an adjunct to the above tactics, Ford advocated reporting accrued comp time in a manner that shows its true impact on the budget.

In the end however, and although current board members said they intend to squash excessive comp time accumulations, some degree of accrued comp time liability will remain on the books.

“It (accrued compensated absences) always happens, but is it pursuant to the policy?” Warn said, and added. “Once you allow them (employees) to accrue it, they own it, even if it was against policy.”

james@pagosasun.com