CLEARWATER — In March, the city found a pattern of problems in the way sick and vacation time is used and monitored within the Fire & Rescue department.
Now city officials have found mistakes in how they audited those issues.
The Human Resources Department has determined Fire & Rescue mistakenly paid out $102,124 in unearned or unauthorized sick time, benefits and other incentives over the past five years, which is about half the original estimate of $218,766 released in March.
Human Resources Director Joseph Roseto said the discrepancy is due to the department’s rush to get information out quickly and transparently once it was requested by WFLA-TV. It was only after the initial audit was completed that officials determined some of the questionable sick time used by employees actually had legitimate explanations.
"I wanted to err on the high side as opposed to the low side," Roseto said. "There were a number of folks we included in that total that had legit reasons for being out, it’s just that we weren’t able to find it right away."
The revised audit, however, confirms systematic problems within the department over the past five years: five former employees received $78,470 in sick time and benefits before retiring they should not have been paid; four former employees misused sick time before their retirements, resulting in the city paying $23,653 in unearned pay and overtime costs for colleagues to cover them while they were out; and the city paid out $44,664 in unauthorized sick time and benefits to six employees who had legitimate reasons for leave but did not follow the proper process.
In the legitimate cases, those employees reported sick when they should have filed for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, Roseto said. Sick and FMLA time pay employees the same rate but have different protocol for use.
In one of the more egregious cases of misused time, former Lt. Paul Capo resigned in September, began a job in Colorado Oct. 9 but stayed on Clearwater’s payroll through Jan. 4. He reported sick or on vacation until the new year so he could get the holiday and vacation pay for 2018, collecting $32,161, which the city says he should not have received.
In a statement to the Times in March, Capo said his departure with Fire & Rescue was "in full approval from my department head" after giving notice to Chief Scott Ehlers and Deputy Chief Marvin Pettingill in September. He said there was an understanding he’d return to work his last day on Jan. 4, which he did.
Ehlers said checks and balances to ensure cases of vacation and sick leave followed protocol had failed.
Roseto said human resources is still investigating how the errors occurred systematically for so long and plans to issue a report on its findings. Administrative support manager Martin Moran resigned in March over the errors.
"Clearly there were practices in that department where they weren’t following the rules," Roseto said. "At the end of the day, there was an issue."
Sean Becker, president of Clearwater Fire Fighters Association, the local union, said the city has retrained fire administration over the past month on protocol for sick, vacation and FMLA.
Although Fire & Rescue is the only department out of 19 where human resources found a pattern of misuse of sick and vacation time, Becker said the errors were not malicious. He said employees had time and circumstances approved by supervisors and they were using benefits as they assumed they were allowed.
"I would call it a miscommunication at best," Becker said.
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.