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Sick leave pay bill could cause problems for Travis County

Wednesday, March 23, 2011 by Michael Kanin

A bill pending in the Texas legislature could cost Travis County millions of dollars by forcing it to reimburse members of the Sheriff’s Department for nearly three times the amount of sick leave they do now. Under the terms of the bill, the county would have to reimburse those employees for up to 740 hours of sick time when they leave county service.

 

Current county policy allows Sheriff’s Department staff to be reimbursed for half of the sick time they accumulate up to 240 hours. County budget analyst Travis Gatlin told the court in a memo that the proposed changes would increase Travis County’s current policy liability for sick pay “by $8,853,293, based on analysis conducted … (in 2009) on virtually the same bill.”

 

“This means that a Sheriffs Office Civil Service employee could receive incrementally twice as much as they would under the current county policy,” Gatlin wrote. That would also mean other county employees similarly situated “would receive about 1/3 from the sick payment at termination as (Sheriff’s Office) Civil Service employees.”

 

Travis County currently holds enough money in reserve to cover a sizable chunk of its employees’ sick leave paybacks, and County Judge Sam Biscoe was concerned about how that fact would interact with the new bill. He compared the situation to the well-publicized – and deeply problematic – underfunding of some jurisdictions’ public pension funds.

 

“From our perspective, if a liability is there, than you really ought to be able to pay it,” he said. “We would have to change that policy in order to reduce that amount, but it would be … risky. Right now a lot of governmental entities are having problems funding retirement because they don’t fund as they go, and then all of a sudden, they have a whole lot more retiring in one year then they are accustomed to – and so the funding isn’t there.”

 

President of the Travis County Sheriff’s Officers’ Association James Hodge told the court that his organization is “seeing folks being punished for being good employees.”

 

“If I’m healthy and I go through my career without taking my sick time, I lose,” he said.

 

Hodge also suggested that some officers game the current system. “I just had a guy retire a couple of months ago,” he said. “He went out on family medical leave in June and … he missed almost the last six months of work.”

 

Precinct 3 Chief Deputy Constable Stacy Suits said he objected to the change, though the county constables had not yet had a chance to discuss it. “I think all county employees –whether they are law enforcement, rank and file, or clerical – should be treated the same on these issues,” he said.

 

Meanwhile, the county’s Intergovernmental Relations Coordinator, Deece Eckstein, suggested that Travis officials oppose the bill. Eckstein also noted that Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, and Bexar counties had all “expressed their opposition” to the measure.

 

Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) is the author of this year’s version of the bill. Former Rep. Valinda Bolton brought it forward in 2009. The court will take formal action on its position next week. “Two years ago, we opposed it (and) it’s the same one,” Biscoe said.

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