'Comp Time' Rules Need Tightening

August 16, 1993

For years, top managers in Baltimore City's government earning more than $50,000 a year have enjoyed a benefit that has their colleagues elsewhere green with envy.

By not taking time off, they have been able to accumulate up to 192 days of vacation leave plus 55 days of compensatory time. That totals more than eight months!

But wait, it gets even sweeter.

At retirement, many departing top officials take advantage of a liberal policy that allows top employees to turn unused leave time into sick leave and then get one day's pay in cash for every three days of leave.

This well-meaning policy has been a fiscal time bomb ticking away.

City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean estimates that compensation claims by 1,240 eligible employees could cost the city a whopping $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 tighten the "comp time" rules. But the changes he has announced are not tough enough.

As of Jan. 1, top city employees will no longer be credited with compensatory time. The time they have already earned will be converted into sick leave -- which can still be cashed in at retirement. The mayor can also reward high-ranking employees each year with as many as 15 days of "permission leave" in lieu of comp time.

Even this new policy is far more liberal than in many other jurisdictions and goes against stricter options city auditors recommended.

In their report, auditors proposed 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.

Or that comp time under any disguise be banned altogether with the understanding that the well-compensated top officials' "scope of responsibilities exceeds the 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., five-day work week."

The change announced by Mayor Schmoke is a step in the right direction. But it ought to be only the first step. The city's comp time practice is an invitation to misuse. It needs further tightening.

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