Bellevue Police Chief John Stacey Jr. is a ticking financial time bomb for Nebraska's third-largest city: He's hanging onto about 92 weeks of unused vacation time.
If he cashed it out today, he'd get a check for $165,000 — equal to 1.76 years of his current base salary.
Or he can save it for as long as he works for the city, and watch its value grow with every salary hike he gets.
Stacey, 55, is the poster child for a long-standing City of Bellevue policy that has let employees bank unlimited amounts of unused vacation for as long as they want and cash it out at their current salary.
Measured in hours — the way local governments calculate vacation time — his unused 3,668 hours rise to the top of Bellevue's list. But Stacey is far from the only employee banking hefty amounts of time.
Fifteen other Bellevue staffers have stored up at least 500 hours each. Six more are sitting on 400 to 500 hours each. And another 20 have 300 to 400 hours apiece.
The policy is a Cadillac compared with what's offered by other Midlands cities and the private sector.
Work for the City of Papillion and you can't sell back any unused vacation.
Lincoln lets workers sell back their time upon departure, but they can carry over only 80 unused hours.
Omaha, Council Bluffs and Des Moines are more generous, but none offers unlimited banking of unused time.
Bellevue has finally begun reining in the perk. City Administrator Gary Troutman asked employees to trim their banked time by cashing in part of it, and he has started implementing a new policy that will cap carryover vacation time for some employees beginning next May.
“It wasn't until recently that we could see the cash-flow problem coming,” Troutman said.
As of today, 140 of Bellevue's 260 employees have complied with Troutman's request. As a consequence, the city has paid out about $230,000 in carryover pay — equal to 7,000 work hours. The new budget sets aside $300,000 for more payouts.
Part of Bellevue's problem relates to its generous vacation time.
Veteran staff members get six weeks of vacation a year. About 50 of the city's 260 full-time employees — managers and police command staff — receive another two weeks of “use-it-or-lose-it” administrative leave.
That gives employees such as Stacey a total of eight weeks of vacation to schedule yearly.
Stacey, who became a Bellevue police officer in 1978 and was named chief in 2005, said there's no way he can take all that time, given his job responsibilities.
In fact, the chief seldom takes more than the two weeks of annual “use or lose” leave. This year, Stacey took his “use or lose” leave and 36 hours of regular vacation. He had used only 22 hours of regular vacation the previous three years.
“There are just not many times that I can get out of there,” Stacey said. “The longer you're gone, stuff just piles up. I don't have any assistant chiefs or even a deputy chief.”
Of the half-dozen area cities checked, none offers as much time to its employees, with the exception of Omaha’s fire union employees, who get 298 hours a year after 30 years. That works out to about 12 days, because their time is measured in 24-hour shifts, not eight-hour days.
But Bellevue stands out with its lucrative combination: a generous number of vacation days, unlimited carryover and the added bonus of cashing in at your peak salary.
This month, for example, Steve Betts cashed in 400 hours after being promoted in March to assistant Bellevue fire chief. He accumulated most of the hours as a communications supervisor, a job that paid him $73,000 last year. But the vacation was cashed in at his current, higher salary of $87,984. The difference alone was worth an extra $2,912.
Like Bellevue, Des Moines used to let staff accumulate unlimited vacation hours — former Police Chief Bill McCarthy cashed out 1,560 hours when he retired in 2006 after 36 years in the department.
Today, though, Des Moines caps vacation carryover at 400 hours in any budget cycle, except for about 10 percent of staff who were grandfathered in under the old plan.
By contrast, Bellevue's neighbor, Papillion, limits all staffers to 40 carryover hours.
“Vacation time is there to be taken,” said longtime Papillion City Administrator Dan Hoins. “It is not there to be accrued and not to create a payout when the person leaves city government. If we had even just one police officer leave the city with six months of vacation, we would not be able to hire a new cop for six months.
“That's not good for the community and not good for the function of the city's public safety.”
State Auditor Mike Foley said Bellevue's vacation policies strike him as unfair to city taxpayers, saying they are clearly more generous than what the state government provides and what most Bellevue taxpayers get from their own employers.
“I don't think the employees are doing anything wrong. They are simply reaping the benefits of what is offered under their employment package,” Foley said. “You want local governments to compensate people appropriately, but they need to be in keeping with the market and within reason. What's happening in Bellevue strikes me as very, very peculiar.”
Bellevue's policy of unlimited vacation accrual goes back decades, Troutman said, to an era when local governments paid far less than their peers in the private sector.
Nowadays, public-private sector pay is similar, but government benefits are much greater.
Mary Drueke, manager of employee benefits at Swartzbaugh Farber & Associates in Omaha, said Bellevue's approach is virtually unheard of in the private sector.
“It's unique for anybody to be able to roll over an unlimited amount of vacation days and sell them back at a pay rate higher than they earned,” Drueke said. “Most companies allow a couple of weeks of rollover, but what you don't use, you lose.”
In Bellevue, management staff have banked the largest amounts of unused time, including six members of Stacey's police administration.
After the chief, Lt. Ed Monnier has the most: 1,533 unused vacation hours.
Police Lt. Bill McClintick has 991 unused hours after selling back 200 hours during the past year.
Others on the list include library director Lupe Mier, with 901 unused hours, and emergency management director Dale Tedder, with 994 unused hours.
Although Troutman's $106,000 salary has been frozen since 2006, he has collected an extra $26,500 total since 2007 by reselling about 520 unused hours. He currently has 140 unused hours.
Troutman's contract includes 251 hours of vacation — a little more than six weeks — but he said it's hard to take more than two or three weeks each year.
“It's simple to just say ‘Get out of here,' but in some cases, it's difficult,” Troutman said. “We have kept a skeleton crew for so long.”
Stacey said the people with the most unused vacation are among the city's most dedicated staff, particularly those in his department.
“Sometimes people think of government workers as leaning on a shovel or just waiting by the clock to punch out,” Stacey said. “It's nice to know that in our system we are promoting sergeants, lieutenants and captains because they show dedication. Dedicated employees put their job above their vacation time.”
City employee Chris Petit, information technology manager for 17 years, has sold back 200 hours of unused vacation in the past year. He said he applauds Troutman for trying to address the vacation pay situation before it gets worse.
Petit, union president for the city's managers, still has 240 unused hours. He gets five weeks of paid vacation and another 80 hours, or two weeks “use or lose” time to schedule.
“I believe that reducing the financial liability to the city is sound management,” Petit said. “However, I am concerned that so many employees — over one-third — are exempt from the plan, including many with the largest balances.”
Troutman said he is implementing the new 120-hour cap in phases because it's too costly to force everyone to cash out their unused vacation at once.
He said he will meet with Stacey and others with the largest stockpiles of unused time to set up individual plans. Troutman might require them to schedule more vacation and sell back blocks of unused hours over a longer time.
He also said the city might revise the number of annual vacation hours employees can earn including the extra two weeks of “use or lose” given to managers and police command staff.
Stacey said he has no plans to retire and won't even think about scheduling an extended vacation.
“It's one of those things like paint on the wall,” Stacey said. “I don't even think about it. Being the chief of police — it has no hours. It's all the time. There's no stopping.”
Troutman said Stacey and the others deserve the vacation time.
Stacey's total annual pay is $97,353, including his annual longevity bonus of $2,772 and education bonus of $960.
“Keep in mind, these are all pretty good people who have dedicated a good portion of their lives to Bellevue,” Troutman said. “They are loyal to the city, and they bleed Bellevue.
“When you look at what they are owed, yeah, it is a lot. But, gosh, you also need to ask yourself, ‘What did they have to go through to get it?'”
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