by David Safier

Rob O'Dell has another of his "If it bleeds [money], it leads," "I hate city government" front page exposés in the Star today. The story: City employees get tens of thousands of dollars when they retire if they don't use all their sick and vacation days. It's a typical O'Dell hit piece. Take something that may — or may not — be a bit excessive about city employees' compensation and turn it into the scandal of the century.


Look at the deceptive, apples-and-oranges opening paragraphs. Here's a hint when you read them: O'Dell begins with a total which is 14 times higher than what will be paid out in a single year, then compares it to a single year's payroll.

Tucson owes nearly $44 million in vacation and sick time to employees who have banked it over the years.

That amounts to about 16 percent of the city's annual payroll, which was $269 million in calendar year 2010.

Catch that? A quick read makes it sound like 16% of a city's payroll goes to pay for the sick and vacation pay retirees have accrued over the years. But actually, it's more like 1.1%. As O'Dell writes later,

Last year, the city paid $3.2 million in sick, vacation and other payouts to employees who left the city.

Do the math: $3.2 million is 1.1% of $269 million. That's a far cry from the 16% O'Dell implies. Doesn't look quite as scandalous when you put it that way, does it?

O'Dell rarely out-and-out lies in his stories. He just juggles things around to fit his foregone conclusions.

O'Dell also admits later that the sick/vacation-leave-at-retirement provision was given to workers as part of salary negotiations, meaning the payouts are delayed benefits given to employees instead of immediate pay raises.

So, the choice is, either give employees a pay raise now, or defer some of the raise by giving them an incentive to not call in sick or take vacation days and get some of the money later.

With that in mind, let's look at one of the payouts. O'Dell cites a Streets and Maintenance employee who received a $36,769 payout for his accumulated sick and vacation leave when he left the city. O'Dell doesn't say how long the worker was in the city employ, which would have been helpful, so I'm going to have to make a guess. If he worked 25 years before he cashed out, that means he received $1,471 per year of service, or $123 per month. If he worked 30 years, he received $1,225 per year, or $102 per month. Would O'Dell make this kind of fuss if a worker got a monthly raise of $100 to $125?

But really, the cost to the city is far less than that. First, many workers end up with less sick and vacation leave than this worker (I'm sure O'Dell pulled out the high numbers to make his point), meaning that the average wage increase — the cost to the city — is most likely less than $100 per month. Second, every day this worker showed up and didn't call in sick — maybe working regardless of a cold or minor injury because of the lure of the retirement payout — or decided not to take a vacation is a day the city didn't have to hire a sub, or it means the size of the entire city workforce is lower because the number of days worked per employee each year is increased. Since the city only pays out 25% to 50% of the sick and vacation leave accrued, the payment is far less than it would have cost to replace that worker for those sick and vacation days.

It may be the benefits O'Dell writes about are a bit excessive, I don't know. But city-scandal-monger O'Dell has done it again. He turned a reasonably justifiable 1.1% addition to the city's annual payroll (which may save the city a similar amount each year) into the crime of the century.