Officers and city employees want answers into perk payouts

More than a dozen Atlanta police officers, firefighters and city workers Monday called on the city council to investigate five-figure payments that Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration made to top employees under a little known “hardship” program.

Speaking at a council meeting, many of the workers said they suspect favoritism was at play when Reed’s office allowed Atlanta Police Chief George Turner, two top officials and others to trade unused vacation, sick and compensatory time for cash — a move that at least one councilwoman has called illegal.

And many officers — who are already battling the mayor over pay raises and pension reform — shared their own stories of financial and medical hardships.

“I have a hardship every time I see my paycheck and have to figure out how to provide for my family,” said David Canup, an investigator with the Atlanta Police Department. “For a city that prides itself on equality and fairness … all we see is inconsistency and cronyism.”

Since 2012, Human Resources Commissioner Yvonne Yancy and Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard have approved payments to at least nine employees. Reed has said they were acting within the law.

Turner, the city’s highest-paid employee with a $241,000 salary, was paid $79,000 last year for nearly 700 hours in unused vacation. Deputy Chief of Staff Katrina Taylor-Parks was paid about $29,000 for 371 hours of vacation and 248 hours in unused sick leave. Deputy Chief Financial Officer Gwen Smith was paid nearly $28,000 for 335 hours of compensatory time.

Three other employees were paid a combined $6,000 for unused vacation time. And three city workers were granted a combined $12,000 in advance pay — effectively a loan against future earnings.

District 9 Councilwoman Felicia Moore said the actions violated city code, which authorizes payouts for vacation time only upon retiring, quitting or termination. She said city code is clear in not allowing payments for sick or comp time.

Moore and others also question how employees were able carry over hundreds of hours more than the city code allows. Atlanta’s code allows employees to carry over a maximum of 360 hours of vacation into a new year. Employees also can carry over up to 160 hours of comp time, if eligible.

According to Reed, the practice is nothing new at City Hall. He’s acknowledged the policy should be clearer, if not formalized, but has said he believes the city is within its right to offer the payments to employees experiencing extreme hardship.

The city has no guidelines, however, defining such hardship.

Reed’s administration released a statement Monday acknowledging the concerns and said it will review policies to “ensure that all employees have equitable access” to information about the use of sick, vacation and comp time. Spokeswoman Anne Torres also said the administration will work with the council on policy changes and code revisions.

“The administration is committed to the well-being of all city employees, both uniform and non-uniform, in cases of genuine hardship,” Torres wrote.

But many officers feel differently. Several decried the payments as unfair to rank-and-file employees who have been told to take unused vacation time or lose it.

And they say it’s especially irksome given the protracted battle with Reed over salary and benefits. The mayor refused to grant city-wide raises this year because of a lawsuit a handful of city workers filed challenging his 2011 pension reform, a case still playing out in court. Several employees in upper management, however, have been granted raises, documents show.

“It’s one more kick in the gut to rank-and-file employees,” said Stephen Borders, president of the Atlanta Professional Firefighters union, said in an interview with The AJC.

The police chief declined a request for interview, but spokesman Carlos Campos provided a statement defending the payments. Turner is a 33-year veteran.

“Chief Turner is grateful that the city was able to compensate him for time earned over those many years of dedicated service,” Campos wrote, adding that Turner could have retired in recent years, but instead chose to stay.

Reed spokeswoman Melissa Mullinax has said attorneys for the city believe the laws are “confusing” and want to streamline legislation with the council.

Mary Huber, a former city of Atlanta attorney who now represents police and fire unions, said it’s really pretty straightforward.

“The laws aren’t confusing … this is as clear as it could get,” said Huber. “If you don’t have authority set out in the city ordinances, you can’t do it. You have to go to the council to get an ordinance.”

Huber said the actions may have also violated the state gratuities law. She believes the city is vulnerable to legal challenges on the grounds the payments were unlawful and discriminated against other employees.

APD Sgt. Darren Barr said he was never told of the so-called hardship option when he suffered a heart attack in 2013 and subsequently saw 100 hours of unused vacation time disappear from his paycheck.

“If there was a program like that, it would not be a secret. Everybody would know, and it would be used,” Barr said. “I would like to get my 100 hours back, but I’m not counting on it.”

Several council members agreed Monday to review city laws regarding the benefits. District 6 Councilman Alex Wan, chair of the finance committee, said he plans to take up the issue at the next meeting. District 8 Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean has called for a review of 2010 legislation reforming the benefits policy, lowering the amount of vacation hours employees can maintain. And District 10 Councilman C.T. Martin introduced legislation Monday freezing cash payouts until further review.

Ken Allen, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 623, called the actions a “morale buster.”

“You’re seeing big lump sum payouts of vacation and sick time for a supposed hardship policy, when we have people who lost their houses in foreclosure because their spouses lost their jobs in the economic downfall,” he said.