Commissioners will set policy for comp time

By Marcy Stamper

The attorney for Okanogan County Fire District 6 will prepare a press release explaining the fire commissioners’ options with regard to a contract with former Fire Chief Don Waller.

Commissioners made the brief announcement about the press release after a 40-minute closed-door session and consultation with the attorney at a special meeting on Monday (Feb. 22). They were not able to provide any specifics, they said.

Since the commissioners approved Waller’s contract addendum in December, questions have been raised about the terms of the agreement, which provide Waller with payment for accrued vacation, sick time and compensation time over the next two years while he is on leave, leading up to his retirement. While on leave, Waller will respond to fire calls and attend trainings.

“What we’re really trying to do is open this thing up so everyone can see what we’re up against as commissioners,” said Commissioner Darold Brandenburg after the executive session. “As soon as we get the press release and request other information from the attorney, that’ll tell us what the parameters are.”

“The letter will explain how everything’s working — no decisions were made [during the executive session],” Commissioner Jerry Palm told the 20 people who attended the special meeting.

The press release is not expected until at least next week, Interim Fire Chief Cody Acord said after the meeting.

After the commissioners were back in regular session, members of the public grilled them about Waller’s status and how that would affect his role — and, in particular, the chain of command — at a fire.

“What I’m struggling with is, who directs action on a fire?” asked Ken Doran. “Who is the real authority? Waller is kind of a quasi-chief, sort of on leave, sort of retired.”

The commissioners approved a motion to ask their attorney to clarify Waller’s role and authority, particularly when he and other staff respond to a fire.

The public also wanted to know whether Waller would be paid when he reports for work, or whether that time would be subtracted from his comp time and be paid out when he retires at the end of next year. Acord said that any time not used at the end of Waller’s two-year contract addendum will be paid.

Comp-time policy

The commissioners are reviewing four draft policies about compensation time and will make recommendations to Acord for discussion at their next meeting. The district currently has no policy about the amount of comp time an employee can accrue, they said.

The district has policies that cap the amount of sick time an employee can accrue at 1,040 hours and vacation time at 240 hours, meaning it rolls back to those amounts at the beginning of a calendar year, even if the employee has accrued more hours, said Acord. On leaving employment, an employee could be paid for half of unused sick leave and all unused vacation time. Employees build up to these benefits over many years, so an employee early in his or her career would not be entitled to this much compensation, said Acord.

The comp-time proposals under review set a ceiling ranging from 40 hours to 480 hours. Different drafts set caps in a single year or an entire career, said Acord. The drafts came from the attorney, other fire districts and federal agencies.

Comp time for non-exempt staff must be provided at time-and-a-half, but comp time can be negotiated at straight time or time-and-a-half for exempt staff, said Acord after the meeting. Of the district’s five employees, two — the chief and assistant chief — are exempt. The three division chiefs are non-exempt.

Commissioners need to come up with a reasonable limit for comp time because, “during a busy fire season, it is easy for a firefighter to work a couple-hundred extra hours in a couple of weeks,” said Brandenburg.

They also need to manage the situation to balance compensating employees with having an adequate level of protection to respond to fires and other emergencies, said the commissioners.

Waller announced his intention to retire at the commissioners’ December meeting. The addendum to his contract grants a two-year leave, during which Waller will be paid for 4,021 hours of vacation and sick leave, as well as compensation time that he accrued over 14 years of working for the district.

Waller will be compensated for the accrued time at his most recent salary rate and will retire at the end of the two-year leave, which began Jan. 1. At the end of the leave, all remaining accrued benefits, including vacation and sick leave, will be paid out.

A state auditor is reviewing Waller’s paid-leave arrangement as well as records of hours worked by other staff. The auditor began a full review of personnel time, logbooks and computerized records in early February after a citizen-hotline request.

The commissioners will consider comp-time policy at their next meeting on March 14 at 7 p.m. in the Twisp fire hall.