Today’s story by the AJC’s Katie Leslie, about an Atlanta City Council vote to award $2 million in extra pay to city employees (MyAJC.com subscription required), manages to touch on just about every element of dysfunction in the city’s government specifically, and many governments more broadly. Let’s go through it.
You have the retroactive awarding of money that hadn’t been promised to workers:
“The Atlanta City Council voted Monday to give nearly $2 million to employees who lost unused vacation time last year …” (emphasis added here and elsewhere)
You have the biggest plums going to those who were already well-paid:
“… members of (Mayor Kasim) Reed’s administration and a municipal court judge are poised to receive some of the biggest individual checks, with many now owed five-figure payouts for excess vacation time. City leaders note the high payouts are a function of bigger salaries.”
You have extra payments that equal or exceed what a minimum-wage worker would receive for an entire year of part-time — or, in some cases, full-time — work ($7,540 and $15,080 respectively, based on 52 weeks):
“According to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a sample of employees who will now be paid for lost vacation time reveals that Municipal Court Judge Crystal Gaines will be paid $21,500 for lost vacation, Chief Financial Officer Jim Beard will receive $12,000 and Reed’s Chief of Staff Candace Byrd will receive roughly $10,500. Andrea Boone, head of the Office of Constituent Services, will earn nearly $15,000. And City Attorney Cathy Hampton will be paid more than $8,000.”
You have an arbitrary deadline forcing the Council’s hand before the proposal could be fully vetted:
“A handful of councilmembers asked for more time to review the legislation, but District 10 Councilman C.T. Martin — who sponsored the payout legislation — said it was important to pass it now so that those employees could receive checks by Christmas.”
You have the money being spent outside the budget, from money set aside for hard times:
“The money will be paid from the city’s reserve funds.”
You have an action that doubles down on a questionable action in the past that remains controversial:
“The decision to allow payouts comes months after news broke that Reed’s administration paid a select number of employees thousands for unused sick, vacation and compensatory time in so-called hardship payments. Among them, Atlanta Police Chief George Turner, the city’s top earner at $241,000 a year, was paid nearly $80,000 for unused leave in 2013.
“Martin said his legislation seeks to address employee concerns over fairness. Many employees had never heard of the hardship program under which Turner and others were paid.”
You have this action being taken even though it stands to exacerbate, not alleviate, the previous controversy, potentially setting up a larger financial problem in the future:
“Detractors on the council said the payouts don’t fix the original concerns. And some councilmembers said it will encourage employees to not use their vacation in hopes they, too, will receive payments for that time.”
You have the Council rejecting a cost-saving measure:
“(Post 2 At-Large Councilwoman Mary) Norwood suggested capping the amount employees can receive, a move that (District 11 Councilwoman Keisha Lance) Bottoms also pursued with a proposed amendment to Martin’s measure. That effort was unsuccessful.“
You have the Council treating a symptom rather than the disease:
“(District 8 Councilwoman Yolanda) Adrean said the council should consider a larger issue: why employees aren’t taking the time given to them.”
You have the likely creation of another financial liability that hasn’t been quantified:
“… it’s unknown how the payouts … will affect pension payments to employees who retired this year and lost vacation time in 2013.”
You have the Council acting now, even though an attempt to address the issue more broadly is still in progress:
“(District 6 Councilman Alex) Wan called for a comprehensive strategy in addressing salary concerns. Earlier this summer, Martin and the council formed a technical advisory committee to study the issue. That committee hasn’t yet completed its work.”
You have friction between management and a union representative for rank-and-file workers:
“Ken Allen, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 623, has mixed feelings about Martin’s legislation. He points out that it benefits both exempt and nonexempt workers who have different reporting requirements regarding vacation.
“‘I’m not against it because there are employees benefiting from it,’ he said. ‘But I feel there are a lot of executive employees benefiting from this who are probably undeserving.'”
You have, also in that last quote, a reference to the fact people in management don’t punch a time clock the way hourly workers do — and thus the possibility that their vacation usage wasn’t tracked closely enough to justify paying them for some days now.
And finally, of course, you have the Council doing something for public employees whose pay is funded by taxpayers who, in many if not most cases, don’t get the same benefit in question.
Atlanta has made some strides in fiscal policy in recent years, but this is a sobering reminder of just how quickly and easily our elected officials can fall off the wagon again.