In a decision that could save Buncombe County about $370,000 a year, commissioners voted to place a 40-hour cap on the amount of unused vacation time employees can sell back to the county.
The county Board of Commissioners made the decision Oct. 16 after initially delaying the vote for two weeks to get more input from staff on the savings produced by different annual limits. Some commissioners believed the 40-hour cap wouldn’t go far enough.
“You’re paying people twice for their vacation,” Commissioner Al Whitesides said. Whitesides had advocated cutting the policy altogether, which county staff estimated would save about $1.4 million per year. “We’ve got a fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayer, folks,” he said.
Commissioner Joe Belcher had initially suggested an 80-hour cap during the meeting on Oct. 2, but he adjusted his recommendation to 40 hours after seeing the numbers provided by county staff.
Belcher said it’s prudent for the county to cut costs, but eliminating the policy entirely would be hasty. “[The 40-hour cap] is a move in the right direction,” Belcher said, “but it also protects those who do use that money on the lower end of the pay scale for emergencies or Christmas or various things.”
Whitesides said it isn’t fair for employees at the lower end of the pay scale to have to sell their annual leave in order to pay their expenses.
“To do it this way, we’re skirting the issue, folks,” Whitesides said. “We need to deal with their pay if we want to help the people at the lower end of the pay scale.”
Unamended, Buncombe County has the most generous annual leave sale policy compared to peer counties in North Carolina. Buncombe’s policy allows employees to sell a virtually unlimited number of leave hours per year. Mecklenburg, the only other peer county with a leave sale policy, caps the amount at 40 hours.
Interim County Manager George Wood suggested in September that commissioners cut spending on annual leave and health care in order to bridge an estimated $5.4 million budget gap for fiscal year 2020. Commissioners opted to keep the county’s current health plans for another year but on Oct. 16, adopted Wood’s recommended changes to the annual leave policy.
From July 1, 2006, to March 31, 2018, Buncombe County spent about $13 million to purchase unused vacation time from employees. The county is obligated to pay an employee for unused annual leave when they retire or resign, which the county classifies as “payouts.”
Voluntary leave sales accounted for about three-quarters of the $13 million the county spent during this time frame.
During an August work session about employee benefits, Wood noted that the county’s annual leave policy favors higher-paid employees. “If you’ve been here a while and you get four weeks,” he said, “you just got another month of salary. And if you’re making a large salary, that’s big money.”
The amount of money that an employee receives for their time off is tied directly to their salary, and employees receive more annual leave hours the longer they stay with the county. Employees with more than 20 years’ experience who were hired before Aug. 1, 2002, accumulate annual leave the quickest, receiving 27 days per year.
Former County Manager Wanda Greene, who is charged with embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the county, received about $353,000 from July 1, 2006, until her retirement in 2017 by selling her unused annual leave back to the county.
According to a spreadsheet of employee sales and payouts provided by the county, that amount is almost three times more than the next-highest recipient for the period, former County Manager Mandy Stone, who received about $138,000.
Greene’s contract didn’t place a limit on the number of vacation days that she could accumulate. Normally, employees can only “bank” up to two years’ worth of vacation days. The county converts any hours accumulated beyond this threshold to sick leave on Feb. 1 each year.
Federal prosecutors have charged Greene, Stone and former Assistant County Manager and Planning Director Jon Creighton with accepting lavish vacations from a county contractor in exchange for favorable consideration on county contracts.
An indictment filed on Aug. 7 says Greene, Stone and Creighton claimed they worked during these trips, allowing them to preserve their annual leave.
“I don’t want to take the actions and abuse of a few and penalize the many,” Belcher said on Oct. 16. “However, it is good policy to look at these dollars and to move from unlimited to something. I just can’t move all the way to zero.”
Under the revised policy, employees must also maintain 40 hours of vacation time in reserve before cashing in any unused time above the 40-hour balance.
The vote was 5-2, with commissioners Whitesides and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara dissenting. Beach-Ferrara wasn’t present but joined commissioners by phone.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated Monday, Oct. 29 at 6 p.m. to reflect that commissioners still need to hold a public hearing before the 40-hour cap goes into effect. That hearing will occur during the board’s regular meeting on Oct. 30. County staff have recommended that the effective date of this amendment be Jan. 15.