Dozens of Fresno County government workers who retired last year collected a final check fattened with tens of thousands of dollars of extra pay for unused vacation and sick time. Four retirees collected more than $60,000 apiece.
More county employees will do the same this year.
It's an expense that county administrators have sought to rein in as budget revenues continue to shrink. They have urged employees to use their leave time and even put caps on how much time employees may amass.
But because of recent staffing cuts and work furloughs, officials say it's been hard to schedule leaves and wipe the time off the books. Making things more difficult, county policy gives employees what some say is a generous amount of time off, and many had banked this time for years.
According to county records, the county paid $5.1 million of unused vacation and sick time to retiring employees last year. The prior year, the county paid $4.7 million. Slightly smaller amounts were paid in previous years.
While the payouts are only a fraction of the county's total budget, administrators acknowledge the expense is not trivial. The weak economy has forced county leaders to save money wherever they can -- which has resulted in employee layoffs and slashed public services.
Critics say allowing retirees to cash out millions during tough budget years is bad policy.
"This smacks the taxpayer right in the face," said Chris Mathys, manager of the nonprofit Valley Taxpayers Coalition Inc. "This wouldn't be happening in the private sector."
Mathys says sick time and vacation time should be reserved for just that: time off, not for holding onto and cashing out later.
Over the past decade, county administrators have negotiated with employee groups for new limits on how much leave time employees may amass. The efforts have had some success in reducing expenses.
Most employees can now bank no more than 600 hours, or 15 weeks, of leave. After that, employees forfeit earning new leave until they use the banked time.
Many employees hired before the 600-hour cap was instituted, however, have more hours banked than is currently permitted and, because these hours often are grandfathered in, the workers continue to present greater liability for the county.
Caps in previous years varied and ran as high as 1,100 hours.
"Until you get rid of the older employees, the [cash-outs] are still going to be an expensive deal," said county Auditor-Controller Vicki Crow, who tracks the county's finances.
The county's vacation policy also has made it difficult to reduce the amount of leave time that employees amass. Supervisor Judy Case calls it an "over-generous" amount of time.
Most new employees accrue four weeks (20 days) of annual leave, which can be used for vacation or sick days. They earn more with additional years of service. At 12 years, employees accrue 38 days of leave yearly.
"Employees can't use the time as fast as they accrue it," Case said. "And then it just becomes a cash-out opportunity."
In 2011, 139 retiring employees each cashed out more than $10,000 worth of unused leave, according to the records. Hundreds more collected lesser amounts.
In 2010, 127 retiring employees each cashed out more than $10,000.
Former Social Services Director Cathi Huerta got the biggest payout last year: $66,495, according to the records. The year before, longtime public works manager Frank Fowler cashed out the most: $68,406.
Adding to the county's expense, leave hours are often worth more when they're banked since employees cash them out at their retirement pay rate, which is generally higher than in earlier years.