Insufficient 'comp time' reform

August 09, 1993

Baltimore City's top managers may not receive the highest salaries around. But some of them are doing quite nicely -- and reaping a bonanza upon retirement. For years, some 415 bureaucrats making more than $50,000 a year have been able to accrue mountains of compensatory time. At retirement, they are able to convert it into cash at the rate of one day's pay for every three days owed. Stories are told of one retiring long-time department head, who departed several months early and still received a hefty amount of cash.

Many top city employees have earned the money for their hard work. But others are playing the system to the hilt because "everyone does it."

In recent months, City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean has been seeking an end to this practice which is an open invitation to fraud. It is, for example, quite impossible to ascertain whether a department head is entitled to the "comp time" he or she claims, when no one else monitors those claims.

Unless curbed, the practice presents the city with major unfunded liabilities.

Ms. McLean estimates that if everyone entitled to cash in his or her comp time claimed it, the cost to the city would be $23 million. (When her auditors examined the cases of just 59 top employees eligible for ordinary retirement as of Nov. 30, 1991, it was learned that their severance pay would have been $2.4 million -- or an average of nearly $41,000 each -- had everyone decided to retire).

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has now decided to modify the comp time practices. But the changes he has announced do not go far enough.

Under the new policy, top city employees can no longer be credited with compensatory time as of Jan. 1. The time they have already earned will be converted into sick leave -- which still can be cashed in at retirement. To further sweeten the pie, high-ranking employees can be rewarded with as many as 15 days of "permission leave" a year in lieu of comp time. Even this new policy is far more liberal than in many other area jurisdictions.

In their original report, city auditors recommended that paid-out unused sick leave simply be credited to length of service for purposes of retirement calculations. Or that top officials be encouraged to use their comp time during slack periods within one year.

We liked the auditors' third option best. It said top officials ought to be hired with an understanding that "their scope of responsibilities exceeds the 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., five-day work week." All department heads, in particular, should know they are on call 24 hours a day. It's part of the job.

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