The City of Bellevue continues to make progress in scaling back its policy of unlimited banking of vacation time, but not without financial pains.
Bellevue has made more than $400,000 in vacation payouts — about $150,000 more than it anticipated this budget year — as part of the city's push to whittle down employees' saved-up vacation.
Nearly half of that money went to former Police Chief John Stacey, who received more than $196,000 for unused vacation time when he resigned amid controversy.
Two members of Stacey's command staff, Capt. Herb Evers and Lt. Ed Monnier, also retired recently, increasing the city's payouts.
“It caught up to us big time,” City Finance Director Rich Severson said.
Overall, city officials are pleased with Bellevue's strides since 2010, when outgoing City Administrator Gary Troutman began to tackle the growing financial problem.
By October 2010, city employees had accrued more than 45,500 hours of unused vacation, and 16 employees had stockpiled at least 500 hours each in unused vacation time, led by Stacey's 3,668 hours.
Bellevue's overall figure has been trimmed to 34,650 hours. Eight employees still have at least 500 hours of unused vacation.
“This pales in comparison to what it once was,” Severson said. “We are knocking it down.”
Troutman's replacement, Dan Berlowitz, has said the city's vacation benefits were not meant to be supplemental retirement plans.
Last year Berlowitz notified all department heads to reduce their individual vacation balances to 120 hours by this October. Two employee unions also agreed to reduce the unused vacation caps of their members to 120 hours. The Bellevue Police Command Staff Association has until May 2013 to reduce its cap to 360 hours.
“We have made huge headway and tremendous gains since we started this process three years ago,” City Council President Scott Houghtaling said. “The public has to realize this dates back to prior city administrations.”
With Stacey and Monnier retired, Police Capt. David Stukenholtz has the largest vacation stockpile — about 1,100 hours.
Interim Police Chief Mark Elbert has the second-highest total, at 780 hours, but his figure is down more than 150 hours from about two years ago.
Elbert, 43, said he is committed to eliminating his entire vacation bank by the time he retires in about 12 years. He said he realizes the high-dollar vacation payouts have an impact on the city budget.
“It's my ultimate goal ... that I personally will not have a single hour of vacation on the books, so it does not cost them anything,” Elbert said. “I have a plan in place, and I just know I will take it.”
Part of Bellevue's problem relates to the amount of its vacation time.
Veteran staff members get six weeks of vacation a year. About 50 employees who are managers or police command staff receive an additional two weeks of “use-it-or-lose-it” administrative leave.
That gives some employees eight weeks of time off to schedule yearly.
“I would say we are making progress in the right direction,” Elbert said. “Dan Berlowitz is putting restrictions in place, and these gigantic vacation payouts will be nonexistent and not be in place. The attention being given from the city administration is significant. It is a priority to get this under control.”
Longtime Councilman David Sanborn said he hopes other employee benefits, including the sick-leave payouts, also receive scrutiny.
“All these things need to be considered and revised and looked at,” Sanborn said.
Moving forward, Bellevue must look to the private sector as its model for keeping employee compensation and benefits in line, Sanborn said.
“It's evident with some of the large vacation and sick payouts we've had, governments cannot keep paying those excessive amounts,” he said. “In the future, we've got to tighten the reins.
“There isn't a trust fund for paying them.”
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