Policy allows some county employees to buy days off - Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Policy allows some county employees to buy days off in exchange for donation

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MEMPHIS, TN -

(WMC-TV) - How would you like to work for a place that gives out vacation days for your birthday, for holiday shopping days, and as a reward for making a modest donation to charity?  You'd be hard pressed to find a private company that generous, but it's been going on for years in Shelby County government.

During a recent visit to General Sessions Court, Action News 5's Lori Brown must have seemed dangerous.  Employees working for Court Clerk Otis Jackson wouldn't answer the door to their office during Brown's visit, and called sheriff's deputies instead.

"I guess it's you guys knocking on the door," a responding deputy said. "They didn't have to put it out like it was a home invasion."

Perhaps no one wanted to talk on camera, or maybe they were all on vacation.  That's where General Sessions Court Clerk Chief Administrative Officer William Stovall was during Action News 5's multiple attempts to reach him.  Stovall and his boss, Jackson, had both cashed in on five bonus days off in the name of charity.

Here's how it works: a policy at General Sessions allows employees to donate to charity in exchange for a paid day off.  If a person donates $50 to United Way, he or she gets one day off.  A $250 donation is worth a week.  

The policy helped raise nearly $23, 500 for United Way, but cost taxpayers $62,000 dollars to pay employees for their bonus days off.

Action News 5 tried to reach Otis Jackson for comment by visiting his office three times over the course of eight days.  Additionally, calls and emails to him were not returned.

"It's interesting that an elected public official would be hiding behind closed doors if he expects to be re-elected," said Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz.

Ritz is working to put a stop to days off on your dime.

"They all get huge amounts of vacation time and sick leave," Ritz said. "It's the most generous program around. But apparently that's not enough."

And the problem goes way beyond General Sessions, to the Shelby County Sheriff's Office and several offices under Mayor Mark Luttrell. It adds up to 789 bonus vacation days at a cost of nearly $127,000.

"This is why, frankly, at the end of the day, people don't like government, because you see these abuses go on," Ritz said.

Luttrell was not available to interview for this story, and had Shelby County Chief Administrative Officer Harvey Kennedy talk to us instead. According to Kennedy, when he became CAO six months ago, he made it clear employees would no longer be getting days off in exchange for donations.

"We specifically discussed the idea that incentives like that were not appropriate and were not going to be permitted," he said.

But in some departments, it happened anyway.

"I can't tell you exactly how it happened," Kennedy said.

"Having come from the Sheriff's Office for the last eight years in a similar position, we did not permit the additional time off there, and I thought that was fairly standard throughout the county," he added.

But current Sheriff Bill Oldham says it did.

"In 2010, when I took office and I was approached by our committee in regards to United Way, they asked if we could continue with the parameters of 2009, and I agreed," Oldham said.

It's a decision Oldham says he now regrets. Sheriff's Office employees have taken 170 days off - with pay.

"I saw we had 368 eligible for the United Way days, and I said, "My goodness, I didn't realize it was that significant.' That's when we made that decision," Oldham said.

"Part of my responsibility as the Sheriff, and the buck stops with me, is to make sure we're fiscally sound," he added.

Ritz believes Kennedy and Luttrell knew about the donations for paid days off while both at the Sheriff's Office and at the County.  It was certainly no secret in the Sheriff's Office in 2010, according to a flyer posted throughout the department (click here to download), and this certificate (click here to download).

Shelby County's time off policy does not prohibit giving employees bonus days.  Commissioner Ritz plans to change that. He along with Mayor Luttrell's administration will present a new policy in committee this Wednesday.

And if what you've just read isn't enough, in Chancery Court employees get days off for Christmas shopping and birthdays.  We'll have more on that in the days ahead.

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