Goal is to avoid large accrued payouts in future
By Ann McCreary
In response to a citizen hotline call early this year, the state auditor examined personnel policies and records of Okanogan County Fire District 6, and recommended changes regarding paid leave for district employees.
The hotline call to the auditor was made after fire district commissioners signed an agreement last December authorizing two years of paid leave for Fire Chief Don Waller that included payment for more than 4,000 hours of accrued compensatory time.
Staff from the auditor’s office recently met with district representatives to discuss the results of the audit, which recommended the district change its personnel policies “to avoid potentially large payouts or leaves of absence.”
Interim Chief Cody Acord said this week that the fire district has implemented changes over the past year-and-a-half that address concerns and recommendations of the auditor, including limiting accrued leave time to 240 hours. The auditor acknowledged those changes in a letter to the district.
The auditor’s examination of district records found that three of the district’s five full-time employees had built up significant amounts of leave time totaling 7,858 hours. Waller accounted for 4,007 of the total.
Waller announced his retirement last December at the final commission meeting of the year. Rather than pay a one-time lump payment for compensatory time, commissioners agreed to a contract presented at the meeting by Waller that provided two years of paid leave at the same salary rate, with benefits and use of a district vehicle to respond to fire calls. Waller will retire at the end of the leave.
The arrangement drew criticism from some citizens, who raised questions about district personnel policies and recordkeeping regarding leave time for the chief and other paid staff.
In a letter to fire district commissioners, Brandi Pritchard, audit manager, said auditors examined “supporting planners, calendars, spreadsheets and other documents to try and determine whether leave balances were supported and reasonable.”
Auditors said they looked at records between 2002, when Waller was hired as the district’s first full-time employee, through the end of 2015.
Documentation supporting Waller’s 4,007 hours of leave time “appeared to be adequate,” the audit found. “The records appeared to have been created at the time the leave was earned and enough detail was provided to substantiate the leave,” Pritchard said in her letter to the fire district.
There was no indication that the records were reviewed by district commissioners; however the chief did create monthly reports that could have been reviewed, Pritchard said.
Supporting documentation for the other two employees, Brian McAuliffe with 2,163 hours and Acord with 1,688 hours, “was less conclusive,” Pritchard said.
“We could not determine whether the leave accrual was documented at the time it was earned. For example, in one case the same ink was used for multiple years of entry,” Pritchard said in her letter.
In addition, the documentation did not provide detail, such as the reasons the employees worked over 40 hours each week, she said. “As such, we could not test the validity of the leave accruals; however, the chief reviewed these accruals at some point, and he was in a position to determine the validity of the claims.”
In a memo written in response to the auditor’s letter, Acord said the “use of the same ink does not indicate that the document was created at the time the accrual was earned or at a later date. People can prefer to use the same ink and/or the same pen for multiple documents for multiple years.”
Acord also said employees documented what they were doing to accrue leave time, “but not in great detail.” Documents were reviewed by the chief for validity, he added.
As interim chief, Acord said he reviewed the validity of documents on compensatory time before the district paid off the balances for its four active employees in April and May this year.
Pritchard said the examination of the district’s internal controls over compensatory time found three weaknesses:
The district adopted policies in 2007 to cover sick and annual leave, but did not have a policy covering compensatory time, which was only mentioned in passing in the sick leave policy.
The district structured the work schedule of employees in such a way that they accrued compensatory time. Employees were scheduled to work 40 hours per week during the day, but were also expected to participate in mandatory trainings, meetings and call-outs during their unscheduled time.
Stronger policies needed
Although commissioners were aware that leave time was being accrued, “they did not appear to have any idea of the magnitude of these accruals until it was brought to light by the chief’s two-year leave of absence.”
The auditor recommended that the district create stronger policies governing earning and using compensatory time; establish a maximum amount of compensatory that can be accrued or carried over at the end of a year; and implement ways to document, track and review compensatory time.
In his memo addressing the auditor’s conclusions, Acord noted that in June 2015 the district began using time sheet/leave tracking computer software that replaced hand-written journals previously used to document employees’ work hours, Acord said.
The district also restructured employees’ work schedules in June 2015 to “have training nights on Thursdays be part of the regular work week” rather than count toward compensatory time.
In February of 2016, commissioners began reviewing accrued leave time for employees once a month, and in March adopted a new policy governing compensatory time that caps hours at 240, Acord said.
If an employee begins to approach that limit, commissioners have options to address it, including limiting any more extra hours, requiring the employee to use the hours or paying off the hours, Acord said.
The unpredictable nature of work as firefighters means that compensatory time can build up, he said.
“It depends on the number of emergency calls … look at the Carlton Complex — you could have hours and hours,” Acord said.
After meeting this month with Acord and Jerry Palm, commission chairman, Pritchard said the district appears to have taken steps to resolve issues raised by auditors.
“They’ve said they’ve done it, but we haven’t tested it,” Pritchard said. “Based on what they’ve told us, they’ve addressed some of our concerns.”
Fire District 6 is scheduled for a routine audit by the state in 2017, and auditors plan on doing that “sometime in the first half of the year,” Pritchard said.
“We talked with the district about coming in early 2017. We want to get in there sooner rather than later,” she said.