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Cash payouts send wrong message, says Hernando Clerk Karen Nicolai

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County commissioners should reconsider a policy change that allows workers who lose their jobs for misconduct to collect the same payout as those who leave on good terms.

That's what Hernando County Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai has suggested in a memo to top county officials, which will be considered at today's commission meeting.

"This is not a good business practice and it sends the wrong message to employees and members of the public," Nicolai and her audit services director, Peggy Caskey, say in the memo. "Employees who do not leave in good standing should not be rewarded for those actions."

Commissioners last month approved changes to their "paid time off" or PTO policy. The policy explains that employees who leave their jobs would receive a cash payout equal to 80 percent of their accrued paid time off.

But the commission dropped the part that stated "employees dismissed for misconduct will not receive the accrued time unless specifically recommended by the department director and approved by the director of human resources."

The changes were recommended by human resource director Cheryl Marsden, who told commissioners that it is an earned benefit.

"The problem was, do we pay them or not" and without a better definition of "good standing," Marsden said, "we just felt like it would be more consistent if we say they've earned it."

Nicolai said the payout is an earned benefit only if the county codifies that it is.

"To pay everybody makes no sense to me as an auditor," Nicolai said Monday. She acknowledged that deciding when a departing employee's behavior warrants withholding the accrued pay is subjective.

"I don't care where they draw the line," Nicolai said. "I just think there should be a line."

The way the county handled it before, not enforcing the rule against employees guilty of misconduct, was a problem, she said.

For example, in 2008, officials discovered that emergency management aide Stephanie Anderson was claiming overtime she didn't work and carrying on a relationship with then-emergency management director Tom Leto. Anderson quit her job and was charged criminally with grand theft and official misconduct. The charges were dropped when she entered a diversion program.

Leto was fired.

Anderson did not get the payout, while Leto got $10,218.09, according to human resources records.

For long-term employees, the payout can be significant. Charles Mixson, who was fired earlier this year as public works director, took home a payout of $30,064. His assistant engineer, Gregg Sutton, who quit several days later, got $13,577.

One of Mixson's employees, former fleet manager Jack Stepongzi, who quit last year after the county discovered he was receiving kickbacks from a firm that his county department was doing business with, received a payout of $4,168.

In her memo, Nicolai agrees that the policy could have been written more clearly and that a better definition of "good standing" is needed.

"That doesn't mean that the underlying principle of the policy was bad. It would have been a better business practice to consistently apply the policy and to more clearly define management's intent than to entirely strike it from the policy," Nicolai and Caskey wrote.

The memo also quotes from a Florida statute that some public employees committing certain offenses can lose their benefits. She notes that simply having the policy on the books locally "is in itself a deterrent."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Cash payouts send wrong message, says Hernando Clerk Karen Nicolai 03/22/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 22, 2010 10:10pm]
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