October 20, 2021

City faulted for $135K in benefits, vacation time

Eleven years after the state Comptroller’s Office criticized the city of Cortland for inadequate oversight of vacation and leave time — spending about $150,000 without council approval — the state again criticized the city for letting some employees accrue $135,000 in vacation time without sufficient oversight.

The audit advised the city to review the payments and, if appropriate, seek reimbursement.

The audit, which collected data between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2019, examined whether the city’s non-contractual employees’ payroll benefits were authorized and accurate. The report focused on 24 non-contractual employees, including 11 department heads, four deputy department heads and nine non-managerial full-time employees.

The audit noted:

  • Seven non-contractual employees accrued 2,213 more hours of leave than what similar union-represented workers would have accrued, valued at $110,500.
  • Four non-contractual employees were paid for 265 more hours of unused vacation leave than limits established for employees in the collective bargaining agreements, valued at $13,700.
  • The mayor did not require department heads to track their time worked or to submit leave requests, and the Common Council did not approve all leave drawdown payments.

The director of administration and finance and city attorney did not track their time worked or charge leave accruals, and were paid $5,800 and $4,900, respectively, for their unused leave time.

Under a 1973 city resolution, employees not covered under any employment agreement, like department heads, should receive the same benefits as an employee covered by a union contract in a similar position or the same department, according to the report.

The audit found that Mack Cook, the director of finance and administration, and Ric VanDonsel, the city corporation counsel, “did not track their time worked and did not charge any leave during the audit period while earning leave at the same time,” the audit states.

“At the end of 2019, (Cook) had a total unused leave balance of 1,639 hours, valued at $95,500, and (VanDonsel) had a balance of 500 hours, valued at $32,050.”

The report noted two 2010 audits by the Comptroller’s Office found similar problems, where non-contractual employees for the city received benefits inconsistent with the Cortland Common Council’s approval. The city at that time told the state the issues were being corrected.

Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin said Monday the city filed a corrective action plan following an Aug. 3 Common Council meeting.

Non-contractual employees will receive written letters of understanding for what benefits they are entitled to, he said.

“At the end of the day, we have accepted the recommendations and changes they have suggested,” Tobin said.

These recommendations include, according to the audit:

  • Clearly defining the benefits non-contractual employees are entitled to receive by assigning each employee to an approved collective bargaining agreement, approving individual employment contracts or adopting a local enactment.
  • Strengthening payroll processing procedures to ensure that benefits are properly approved and monitored.
  • Requiring all employees who are entitled to leave benefits to maintain time records that document leave requests, approvals and usage.
  • Reviewing payments identified in the audit and, if necessary, seek reimbursement.
  • Having Tobin oversee managers to ensure they properly track time worked, submit leave requests and adhere to provisions in the city charter, city code and CBAs.
  • Having Cook ensure benefits awarded to officials and non-contractual employees are in accordance with Common Council approvals.

Tobin said the findings regarding employees earning more leave and vacation time than similar union employees weren’t quite accurate as the comparisons between non-contractual employees and the benefits they are entitled to aren’t quite the same as for those in unions.

In the case of the mayor not requiring department heads to track their time worked or to submit leave requests, department heads are supposed to email the mayor and payroll clerk when they plan to be off, Tobin said.

“There’s nothing in writing” in terms of policy, Tobin said. “That was the state’s biggest concern.”

In the last finding, Cook and VanDonsel both work overtime but since they are non-contractual employees, they receive extra time off instead of overtime pay, Tobin said.

In comparison to union benefits, “they’re apples and oranges,” Tobin said, as city union workers work eight-hour days while Cook and VanDonsel have to be available more than that and attend city meetings.

“So we’re going to individual contracts and clearly outlining what the compensation is,” he said.