Perk for St. Tammany Parish workers costs taxpayers nearly $1 million

St. Tammany Parish employees have long reaped the benefit of a pricey perk: They could carry over an unlimited amount of unused sick and vacation leave from year to year, and longtime employees could even cash in a substantial portion of those hours.

One employee received a six-figure payout for unused leave, according to records from 2010 to 2013 that The Advocate obtained through a public-records request.

The perk cost taxpayers nearly $1 million for that period.

Parish President Pat Brister said she spotted the perk shortly after taking office in January 2012, when she was reviewing the parish’s thick policy handbook. She says she knew immediately it was a problem, even without crunching the numbers, because of the fact that the rollover was unlimited. That didn’t conform with typical business practices, she said.

By her second month in office, she had trimmed back the benefit. Now parish employees can only carry forward half of their unused annual leave, and that amount cannot exceed 240 hours of accumulated leave. Any amount above that is forfeited, if not used, on Dec. 31 of each calendar year.

That’s still generous compared with neighboring jurisdictions. New Orleans limits the amount that can carry over to 45 days for employees hired after Dec. 31, 1978. Jefferson Parish limits the days that can roll over to 40 for those hired after April 26, 1986.

But there’s a big exception to St. Tammany’s tighter rule: The new limits don’t apply to unused leave that employees accumulated under the old policy. That’s left the parish with a costly liability.

Accrued leave has been in the spotlight in St. Tammany Parish in recent months because of allegations that employees at the coroner’s office were abusing policies that allowed them to cash in unused leave. In that case, however, the questions being raised revolve around whether employees took vacation time and still cashed it in.

In the case of the parish, employees were able to gain substantial financial advantages by following the rules.

The previous policy, put in place under former Parish President Kevin Davis, enabled him to leave office with a check for more than $70,000 for 356 hours of sick leave and 578 hours of annual leave that he did not use during his years in office.

But St. Tammany doesn’t limit such payouts to departing employees. Those still on the roster have also received hefty amounts.

Chief Administrative Officer Bill Oiler, for example, received $28,199 in 2007 for a combination of sick leave and annual leave that he had not used.

That pales compared to Kim Salter, who retired as first deputy chief administrative officer for the parish at the end of May. She was still on the parish payroll in 2010 when she was paid $150,895 — $49,475 for 683 hours of unused sick leave and $101,420 for 1,391 hours of unused annual leave. That’s almost as much as her $159,529 annual salary.

In 2011, Salter cashed in accrued leave again, this time pocketing $45,441. Even after the 2010 payout, she still had 63 hours of sick leave and 544 hours of vacation time.

She collected by far the largest amount in the records reviewed, but in all 14 employees cashed in for amounts above $10,000. Only three of them are still working for the parish.

Davis, who is now director of the governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, says the leave policy was more lenient still under St. Tammany’s old police jury form of government, which was in place before he took office.

A few years into his term as parish president under the new home rule charter, he said that his administration became concerned about the generosity of the perk. The decision was made to cap how much unused leave could be carried forward, he said, although he did not recall the specifics. mployees with more seniority were allowed to cash in their unused time. “It was a benefit,’’ he said.

But according to parish spokesman Ronnie Simpson, the parish never put a limit on how much time could be rolled over until Brister’s administration. From 1995 to 2000, he said, employees did have a limit on how much time they could cash in: 300 hours. In 2000, the policy was changed to allow employees with 10 years of service or more to put amounts above 300 hours into their retirement health accounts.

The policy was changed again in 2005, Simpson said, and this time the cap was removed and all employees were eligible to cash in unused leave time.

In 2008, the Davis administration made yet another change, this time limiting the cash payout provision to employees with 25 years of service or more.

That’s a departure from New Orleans and Jefferson parishes, which both have much stricter caps on how much leave can roll over. New Orleans doesn’t allow employees to cash in unused leave while they remain on the payroll. Jefferson Parish does, but it’s limited to 13 days for those with a balance of 40 unused days and 30 for those with a balance of 90 days.

“When I saw the policy in place, that had been in place — that unlimited amount of leave could be rolled over — I knew that was not good business practice,’’ Brister said.

Her solution was to set limits going forward. Employees who had more than 240 hours of unused leave as of Jan. 1, 2012, are grandfathered under the new policy, but they can’t carry forward any additional hours above the balance they had on that date.

Under the new policy, people must take at least five days off or 50 percent of their annual leave, whichever is greater.

“I do think people need vacation...we expect people to take leave; they need it to be refreshed and to do a better job,’’ she said.

As for sick leave, she said, that should be used when people are sick. Under the new policy, employees cannot accumulate more than 240 hours of sick leave, although employees who had larger amounts of unused sick leave on Jan. 1 get to keep their backlog.

Employees with three years of service of more can get paid out for their unused sick leave but at a rate of one day for every three. They can elect to put the rest in their health retirement account. Otherwise it is forfeited.

Council Chairman Jerry Binder said that he encountered a similar situation when he was on the Slidell City Council in the late 1990s. The mayor and council decided together that the high amount of accrued hours was a problem and reduced the amount that could be carried of over to 240 hours. Slidell also gave employees a two-year- window to use their accumulated leave or lose it, he said.

“Ms. Brister made a good decision changing it to 240 hours,’’ Binder said. He said he didn’t question her decision to let people keep the backlog, noting that there were a number of employees who were planning to retire.

But while Binder praised the change, Carl Ernst of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany said that a better policy would be to follow the military, which he said allows only 60 days of accumulated leave, or to impose a requirement to use leave or lose it.

The perk that parish employees were getting “underscores, with an exclamation point, why we need an inspector general in this parish,’’ he said.

Local government has no incentive for efficiency, he said, and there’s a lack of checks and balances.

“Nobody there is watching the cash register,’’ he said.