Miami-Dade County

Why cataract surgery for Duncan the terrier cost Miami taxpayers $8,430

Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes
Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes EL Nuevo Herald

Dwight Danie had an emergency: Duncan the terrier needed eye surgery.

It was January of last year, and Danie had an estimated $2,700 bill coming down the pike from a South Florida specialty clinic for a procedure to remove cataracts from his dog’s eyes. So he filed paperwork stating that he had an emergency, which allowed him to sell five weeks of untaken vacation valued at $8,430 back to his employer, the city of Miami.

“It was a financial emergency. It was very expensive,” said Danie, at the time an $88,000-a-year elections coordinator. “I’m not a rich man.”

Danie, who told the Herald the money also helped him pay for his mother’s funeral, was hardly the only city employee to experience a crisis last year. Citing situations that included footing their kids’ tuition and funding home improvements, 591 men and women in a city of roughly 4,000 employees sold back “V-time” to the city.

The cost to taxpayers: $2,954,540.

A review of three years of city records shows Miami employees routinely tap into their vacation hours and cash out thousands of dollars each year under a long-standing policy that allows them to sell up to six weeks of accrued vacation time to the city if they have an emergency. Administrators say the practice is like a safety net for their employees, some of whom submitted medical and legal bills or explained they had serious family emergencies, like the premature birth of a baby.

But many simply cited vague “financial hardships” or unexplained emergencies without any backup documentation. And in the years reviewed by the Miami Herald, no one’s explanation for selling back vacation hours, referred to as “V time,” was ever rejected. Furthermore, the city’s lax enforcement may tacitly encourage employees to sell back time they’d otherwise be forced to use or lose.

We’re not going and checking our employees to see if in fact they have an emergency. We take them at their word

Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso

“We’re not going and checking our employees to see if in fact they have an emergency,” said City Manager Daniel Alfonso, who did not sell back any vacation time. “We take them at their word.”

All told, between 2013 and 2015, V-time cost the city $8.6 million. The workers who take advantage of the unique benefit range from low-level staffers to the most senior employees with the highest salaries and the largest allotments of annual vacation hours due to their long tenure. Roughly half were police officers, who make up about one-third of the city’s workforce.

Last year, on the same day Danie requested money to pay for Duncan’s eye surgery, Fire Chief Maurice Kemp requested to sell back 200 vacation hours valued at $25,769.

The previous year, he sold back 200 hours due to an undisclosed emergency. This time, though, Kemp provided his step-son’s past-due $11,087.95 Nova Southeastern University tuition bill as an explanation. Kemp said in an interview that he felt the situation was a financial emergency, and assumed the Human Resources department would deny his request if it didn’t meet the emergency “threshold.”

His counterparts at the police department, Manuel Orosa and Rodolfo Llanes, also sold back vacation time. In 2013, Orosa filed paperwork that said his basement had flooded and sold back $18,846 in vacation hours, an amount he was paid again the following year for an undisclosed “financial hardship.” Llanes also cited an unexplained “financial hardship” that year, selling $14,387 back to the city.

All that matters is if it’s an emergency to me

Former Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa

Orosa said the basement of his new home flooded and caused electrical damage shortly after renovations to the newly purchased abode depleted his savings. But he isn’t interested in any one else’s opinion of the extent of his problem.

“Whether it’s an emergency in someone else’s eyes is irrelevant,” he said. “All that matters is if it’s an emergency to me.”

In Miami, employees earn vacation time throughout the year, and the amount they earn is based on seniority. The longest-tenured employees can receive between five and seven weeks vacation each year, depending on their union contract. For many years, they could accumulate as many hours as they wanted, in some cases building up more than 1,000 hours worth of vacation time — all of which could be cashed out at the end of their careers.

During recent austere times, when municipalities began to eliminate perks typically not afforded in the private sector, city administrators began capping how many hours could be rolled over to the following year. Employees with large caches were allowed to keep their excess hours in a special account, but otherwise employees were only able to roll over between 200 and 600 hours of vacation time to the next year, depending on their union classification. Anything over the cap disappears at the start of a new fiscal year in October.

The change was intended to stop large golden parachutes and to limit the city’s once massive liability for employees’ unused time-off, estimated at $84 million just five years ago. But while employees can only hang on to a limited number of hours, they can still sell up to six weeks of vacation time to the city each year if they attest to having an emergency. Application forms obtained through a public records request showed few last-minute applications, but also showed that often employees requesting time are over the cap.

In a few cases, it looks like workers aren’t even using their vacation time to, well, vacation. City records showed that Detective Wayne Tillman took just 40 hours of actual vacation time during one two-year stretch but sold back 600 hours — and still had six weeks left in his bank.

Still, Human Resources Director Amy Klose said the offer is preferable to employees seeking out short-term, high-interest “payday” loans, and doesn’t believe it appropriate to investigate what can be sensitive personal and medical issues. And despite the new roll-over caps, Klose, who herself sold about $20,000 in vacation time to the city during the last three years, said there’s little incentive to apply rigorous standards to the sell-backs when employees are allowed to cash out when they leave or retire.

Public administration experts who spoke to the Miami Herald said that’s a key reason some municipalities and even a few private businesses offer to buy vacation time each year, since vacation hours only become more expensive as employees climb the seniority ladder.

“There’s a rationale to try and do this to reduce [financial] liability,” said Jonathan West, a University of Miami professor specializing in public administration and human resources.

But the practice of annual sell-backs, while not rare, isn’t universal. Miami-Dade County and Miami Beach, for example, don’t allow it, according to spokespersons. In Coral Gables, police and firefighters are allowed to sell back hours, but on a more limited basis than the city of Miami.

Of course, policies don’t always matter. In Opa-locka, former city manager David Chiverton paid himself $40,000 in emergency lump sums for sick and vacation time last month despite policies that restrict payouts to employee severance.

Vacation and sick-time sell-backs were also the subject of a recent criminal investigation in the Village of Key Biscayne, where employees can sell back hundreds of hours at a time. In 2013, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement spent nine months investigating allegations that some senior employees were clocking in while they were out of town in order to build up their stash of hours and eventually sell time back to the village.

Investigators and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office closed the case without charging anyone.

But in Miami, Orosa, the former police chief, says the city’s policies have laid out how and when employees can sell back time, and employees have done so within the rules. He said if anything, the city has only made it more difficult lately for employees to access time they earned through their contracts.

“The issue shouldn’t be why people pull out money. The issue should be why the city puts such a big burden on the employee to take out their own money,” he said. “It’s their own money.”

The value of vacation

In Miami, employees can sell up to 240 hours of vacation time to the city if they have an emergency. The Miami Herald pulled three years of financial records and pay-out applications. Here are the 10 payouts that cost the city the most, and the reason given by the employee.

Fire Chief

Maurice Kemp

$25,769

16-Jan-2015 — Past-due $11,000 tuition bill for step son

Dep Fire Chief

Joseph Zahralban

$22,334

25-Apr-2014 — Undisclosed financial need

Fire Chief

Maurice Kemp

$21,474

28-Feb-2014 — Undisclosed financial need

Asst. Fire Chief

Alejandro Fernandez

$21,270

14-Mar-2014 — Roof replacement estimated at $18,600

Asst. Fire Chief

Alejandro Fernandez

$21,270

27-Feb-2015 — Document not provided by the city

Police Chief

Rodolfo Llanes

$20,769

13-Feb-2015 — Document not provided by the city

Asst. Fire Chief

Adrian Plasencia

$19,281

21-Nov-2014 — Document not provided by the city

Police Chief

Manuel Orosa

$18,846

08-Nov-2013 — Flooded basement

Police Chief

Manuel Orosa

$18,846

06-Jun-2014 — Undisclosed financial hardship

Sr. Asst. City Atty

Henry Hunnefeld

$17,991

21-Nov-2014 — Undisclosed family emergency

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