Former Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene made about $353,000 from fiscal year 2011 to her retirement in 2017 by selling unused vacation days back to the county.
According to a spreadsheet showing annual leave payments to county employees from the beginning of fiscal year 2007 through March 31, 2018, Greene benefited more than any other county employee from the policy. She received almost three times more than the next-highest recipient, former County Manager Mandy Stone, who made about $138,000.
Unlike other employees, Greene’s contract with the county didn’t place a limit on the number of vacation days she could accrue. “She could keep accruing her leave balance whereas most people, you could only have a certain amount and then the rest would get converted to sick leave,” says Curt Euler, the county’s director of employee benefits and risk management, “but Wanda didn’t have that based on her contract with the board.” The contract Greene had with the county at the time of her retirement dates to 1997.
County spokesperson Kassi Day says WNC Regional Air Quality Director David Brigman also has an employee contract with the WNC Air Quality Board that allows him to accrue an unlimited amount of annual leave. Brigman has earned $51,480.25 by selling 873 hours back to the county, according to the spreadsheet. Day says the Brigman’s contract appears to be modeled after Greene’s. No other current county employees have unlimited annual leave accrual as part of their employment contracts, Day says.
Out of 10 large peer counties in North Carolina, only Buncombe and Mecklenburg have policies that allow employees to sell unused annual leave. Between July 1, 2006, and March 31, 2018, the county has spent about $13 million to purchase almost 490,000 hours of unused vacation time back from its employees.
The value of an employee’s unused annual leave is tied directly to their salary, meaning employees with higher salaries receive more for their unused time. “This really favors your higher-paid employees,” interim County Manager George Wood told commissioners during a work session about employee benefits on Aug. 14. “If you’ve been here a while and you get four weeks, you just got another month of salary. And if you’re making a large salary, that’s big money.”
The county classifies these expenditures in two ways: annual leave sales and annual leave payouts. A payout occurs when an employee leaves and the county is obligated to buy any unused vacation time. On top of the $353,000, Greene received by selling annual leave during the assessed time period, she also received an $8,000 payout from the county when she retired.
Voluntary cash conversions are considered sales. Sales account for about three-quarters of the $13 million the county spent on this policy during the analyzed period.
While Mecklenburg caps the maximum number of hours that an employee can sell per year at 40, Buncombe allows employees to sell an unlimited number of hours each year with approval from their department director.
Commissioners considered capping the number of hours employees could sell per year during their meeting on Oct. 2 but were split about the limit. Commissioner Al Whitesides proposed eliminating the policy altogether, while Commissioner Joe Belcher suggested an annual limit of 80 hours.
Ultimately, commissioners decided to gather more information before making a decision and asked staff to do further research on the savings produced by different proposed caps.
Pointing to the rising cost of health care, Whitesides says the county needs to start getting its expenses under control. The annual leave policy, he says, is low-hanging fruit. “If we take that away, are we really hurting employees?” Whitesides says. “Because they still get their vacation.”
Belcher says his 80-hour recommendation arose from a desire to make a gradual change rather than jump between extremes. “We have to be very careful and understand that we’re not just dealing with a line item,” Belcher says. “We’re dealing with kitchen-table conversations about kids and school and all those things.”
Staff projects the county would not see any savings from capping the policy at 80 hours.
Buncombe County could save $1.4 million per year if it completely eliminated leave sales, Euler wrote in a memo to commissioners on Oct. 9, but could still end up spending $1.4 million if it lowered the cap to 80 hours.
Wood initially broached the topic of slashing the annual leave buy-back policy in September, warning commissioners that they would need to find savings in the budget to avoid an estimated $5.4 million shortfall in FY 2020.
Wood proposed spending cuts on two employee benefits — the county’s health plans and its annual leave policy — to get Buncombe closer to a balanced budget. Commissioners nixed Wood’s health care suggestion on Oct. 2, opting to keep the county’s current slate of health care options for another year. But they left the door open for changes in the future.
Employees earn more annual leave per year as they accumulate seniority with the county. According to the Buncombe County personnel ordinance, employees with less than two years of service receive 10 days per year if they were hired on or after Feb. 15, 2011. Employees with more than 20 years of service receive 20 days per year.
The county’s personnel ordinance notes that employee can also “bank” a maximum of two years of annual leave. The county converts any hours accumulated beyond that cap to sick leave on Feb. 1 of each year. Employees can accumulate a virtually unlimited amount of sick leave, Euler says, and unused sick leave counts toward their years of creditable service, meaning accrued leave contributes to receiving a larger monthly check from the state’s Local Government Employees’ Retirement System upon retirement.
Stone, Greene and former Assistant County Manager and Planning Director Jon Creighton have been charged with accepting lavish vacations from a county contractor, Joseph Wiseman Jr., in exchange for favorable consideration on county contracts. An indictment filed on Aug. 7 says the positions Creighton and Greene held with the county gave them the authority to award those contracts.
The indictment also says the three former county officials claimed they worked during these trips and did not take annual leave for the days away from the office. This allowed them to preserve their annual leave time for sale back to the county.
Commissioners will take another look at this policy during their regular meeting at 5 p.m. on Oct. 16 in the third floor conference room at 200 College St. Read the full agenda here.
Top 5 sales and payout recipients from July 1, 2006 to March 31, 2018
Former County Manager Wanda Greene: $361,046
Former County Manager and Health and Human Services Director Mandy Stone: $138,567
Former Budget Director Diane Price: $124,006
Former Assistant County Manager and Planning Director Jon Creighton: $118,162
Former Tax Director Gary Roberts: $107,461
Other items on the board’s Oct. 16 agenda:
- A motion to employ Scott Jones as an attorney for special projects and authorizing payment for legal services previously provided
- A resolution appointing Donald Warn to the position of finance director, a position that was previously held by Tim Flora
This article was updated at 10:52 a.m. to clarify that Wanda Greene received about $353,000 from the county’s annual leave sale buyback policy plus an $8,000 payout when she left the county. The county is obligated to purchase any unused vacation days from employees when they leave the county.