An auditor told the Southampton Town Board last week that an examination of the system for tracking accrued time off for Southampton Town Police officers showed that the town’s current policy is seriously flawed—lacking proper protocols and cross-checking procedures—and could lead to abuses.
The auditor, Don Hoffmann of the accounting firm Cullen & Danowski, told the board during a work session last Thursday, March 28, that new protocols need to be put in place to ensure that the system for tracking the days officers are at work and their sick days and vacation days is sound and accountable. He said such information should be logged and tracked in the human resources offices at Town Hall, rather than in the Town Police Department headquarters itself, as it is now.
“We believe you should make some changes in terms of documentation policies,” Mr. Hoffman said. “There is some documentation missing.”
The accountant said, however, that there is no evidence that any of the payouts for time owed to retiring officers in recent years—more than $1.5 million in 2011 and 2012 alone—were above what the officers who received them were contractually due.
Thanks to two waves of retirements of senior officers in recent years, the town shelled out some $560,870 in exit payments in 2011 and $949,352 in 2012, according to Town Comptroller Leonard Marchese. The town has also paid out more than $412,000 to retiring officers already in 2013.
Tracking accruals can be complicated because over time various contracts with police unions have allowed varying levels of accrued time payouts. Most officers now are not allowed to carry over any of their annual allotted vacation time from year to year, without specific permission from the department chief. But in recent contracts, officers also receive approximately two dozen sick days per year, which may be carried over year after year if not used. Many older contracts allowed officers to accrue up to 300 sick days throughout their career, while more recent contracts cap the accrual at 200 days.
When an officer retires, he or she is paid for those unused sick days, prorated according to his or her salary in their final year on the job—typically a higher pay rate than when the sick days were collected. A sick day that went unused by a rookie officer earning $45,000 per year, for example, can be carried over and paid by the town at a rate commensurate to the salary of a retiring veteran, who typically earns upward of $125,000 per year.
Despite such generous benefits—or perhaps because of them—town officials have acknowledged in the past that there have been abuses of the system.
“I saw evidence of abuses by officers in the department when I got there,” former Police Chief William Wilson said this week. “Sick time is what has the most value contractually when you’re talking about separation pay at the end of your career, and the antiquated system they have over there is easy to abuse. A sheet is posted on a wall … and anyone can just adjust it themselves if they want.”
Mr. Hoffman on Thursday recommended that the board review the contracts with the police department’s unions, codify what the contracts allow in annual accruals for each officer, and set up a detailed, independent accounting system that closely monitors officers’ attendance and logs use of sick and vacation days.
He noted that, in some instances, the current system leaves supervisory officers in charge of tracking sick and vacation time accruals to log their own time-off use. There should be, at least, a double-check of such entries by another person, Mr. Hoffmann told board members.
Town Management Services Administrator Russell Kratoville noted that Mr. Wilson had begun instituting changes in the time-off logging system early in his tenure at the department, and that current Police Chief Robert Pearce has drafted a formal order to his officers employing some of the recommendations in the auditors’ report.
“Back in 2011, when Chief Wilson came in, we had discussions about changes to some of the practices of communication between the police department and [Human Resources], to put in some better safeguards,” Mr. Kratoville said. “Records are still kept and maintained solely within the police department … but the process has begun.”
Nearly from the day he took over the department, Mr. Wilson began pressing the Town Board to fund a $700,000 information technology system upgrade for the department that would have, among a host of other things, made tracking attendance by officers and accrued sick time more regimented and accountable. The request ultimately led to the first skirmishes in what would become a prolonged battle between the chief and members of the board during his rocky 18-month tenure with the department.