Brunswick council OKs Eldridge contract, but vacation-time concerns linger

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BRUNSWICK — As John Eldridge officially takes the reins as Brunswick’s new chief executive, he intends to tighten up management practices that have allowed employees to accrue, and be paid for, vacation time over what is allowed by town regulations. 

Concern over the substantial vacation time Eldridge has collected during his employment with the town complicated his candidacy for town manager. Town employees can have their accrued vacation time paid out to them when they leave its employ.

A contract approved unanimously on Monday by the Town Council clears up that issue for Eldridge, by placing a cap on the amount of vacation pay he will receive when he leaves. Monday’s vote followed a closed-door executive session between councilors and the town’s attorney.

Eldridge was Brunswick’s finance director for more than 20 years before the council selected him to step in on an interim basis when Gary Brown, then town manager, left in February.

The council voted to offer Eldridge the full-time manager job last month.

“My position right from the beginning is that I knew that we would be talking about (vacation time) and I was willing to reach a compromise,” Eldridge said in an interview Wednesday.

“We reached an agreement on how to handle it and I’m pleased with the way it worked out.”

Eldridge accumulated nearly 1,300 hours of unused vacation time during his 26-year tenure as Brunswick’s finance director, worth approximately $60,000 if paid out as a lump sum.

Under Brunswick’s personnel policies, employees are permitted to carry 30 days, or 240 hours, of unused vacation time, which is paid out to them when they separate from the town’s service. The value of the vacation time is calculated from the employee’s current wage.

Any vacation time over the 30-day limit is lost, unless the town manager authorizes an exception for “unusual circumstances,” according to the policy. 

But according to Town Council Chairman Benet Pols, since the policy was enacted in 1995, town managers have allowed employees, on a largely informal basis, to collect extra vacation time and receive compensation for it when they left. 

When asked how many employees may have been paid out for unused vacation time under this practice, Pols answered “many.”

“All throughout the life of this ordinance, all employees who have had vacation time beyond 30 days – in some cases it was way beyond 30 days, hundreds of hours, two and three times what is allowed to be carried over – got paid when they left,” Pols said.

Department heads, whose hectic schedules sometimes prohibit them from taking their allotted vacations, were more likely than other employees to carry over excess time, Pols noted.

A spreadsheet provided by Eldridge shows that as of July 1, 16 employees, including five department heads, collected vacation time that surpasses the town’s limit.

Eldridge collected the most hours, with Recreation Director Tom Farrell carrying the second-highest number, 815 total hours worth more then $33,000, followed by Police Chief Richard Rizzo –376 hours, or about $18,500 – and Town Engineer John Foster – 318 hours, at nearly $14,200.

A third tier includes Assessor Cathleen Donovan, who has 289 hours at $11,817; Deputy Police Chief Marc Hagan, with 260, or $11,759; and Town Clerk Fran Smith, at 258 hours, or $11,529.

The remaining nine employees have smaller excesses, ranging from $4,800 to $8,000 in valued time. 

Considering the precedent, Pols said there was concern amongst councilors that Eldridge could have grounds to take the town to court if the council refused to honor his accrued vacation time. 

“If you can show that every employee from 1995 onward that carried in excess of 240 hours of vacation time got paid for it, you’d have an awful hard time making the argument that he shouldn’t be entitled to it,” Pols said.

The contract negotiated between Eldridge and the council resolves that issue, Pols added. 

Under the employment agreement Eldridge will be able to carry over 30 days of accumulated vacation time unless the council gives written approval for a larger amount. His entire payout for excess vacation time is capped at $30,000.

The contract also provides Eldridge with a $112,000 annual salary, full benefits and a 12.5 percent yearly contribution to his retirement fund.

But the new agreement does not begin to clear up issues raised by the accrual of vacation time by other employees, Pols noted. 

“Frankly, that’s a thing that can’t be done within the framework of negotiating the one employee that we control’s contract,” he said. “But to the extent we have created a benchmark, hopefully that will help.”

On Wednesday, Eldridge acknowledged that it had become “common practice” in Brunswick for employees to build up vacation time and have it paid out when they left, and said he intends to address the issue.

“We need to have a policy that is enforceable and that we will enforce and we need to deal with the hours that are in excess of the limit,” Eldridge said. 

He did not have an estimate of how much the town has paid out to departing employees in the past. 

The process for requesting vacation carry-over became largely informal, Eldridge said. Previous managers would generally note an employee’s request to accrue extra time, but it was rarely documented in writing. 

“Most times it was just an acknowledgement that people were in excess of the rate and they were allowed to carry it,” Eldridge said. 

Moving forward, he intends to take the issue in hand and rein in some of the extra time, he added. 

“We’re going to deal with those that are over and then look at whether there needs to be any adjustment to the policy going forward,” Eldridge said.

“But we’re going to manage this with definitely a lot more oversight of those hours going forward, and a much more formalized process for requesting vacation carry-over.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.

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