A former San Bernardino County legal counsel’s year off is the example that leads supervisors to put a cap on such benefits

BY IMRAN GHORI
STAFF WRITER
ighori@pe.com

Published: 05 January 2012 10:12 PM

Until November 2010, top San Bernardino County employees could rack up an unlimited number of vacation, holiday or administrative hours.

The policy allowed them to stockpile vacation time and earn large payouts when they left the county, said Supervisor Neil Derry, who proposed the cap.

An example of that was the retirement of former county counsel Ruth Stringer, who left more than a year ago — but it wasn’t until Thursday that she formally retired, according to the San Bernardino County Employees’ Retirement Association.

Over the course of the past year, Stringer continued to earn a full-time annual salary of $230,000 and benefits but was “on vacation,” according to county spokesman David Wert.

The practice is legal and was allowed under the previous county policy.

But the widespread practice has led the Board of Supervisors to place a cap on the amount of vacation time and other leave employees can accumulate.

“It may be legal but it certainly is abusive,” Derry said.

Wert said employees earned their vacation time and are entitled to it but the practice had become costly for the county. At the time the change was approved, the county estimated its financial liability at $8 million and said it would save $1.7 million a year. Data on the amount of vacation timed owed and the number of employees who took advantage of the policy was not available.

“The county’s put a stop to that,” Wert said. “We’re more in line with what other agencies do and what the private sector does.”

The policy only applied to about 550 exempt employees — those not represented by unions. County employees represented by unions already had limits on how much vacation time they could build up.

Under the new “use it or lose it” policy, exempt employees can only accumulate three months worth of vacation time and 2.8 weeks of holiday time.

In Stringer’s case, she left as county counsel in December 2010 and was replaced by Jean-Rene Basle. But because of the vacation hours she had built up, the county for all intents and purposes had two county counsels on the books getting the salary and benefits but only one person doing the job, Wert said.

Stringer served as the county’s top legal adviser for four years and worked for the county for more than 30 years. She could not be reached for comment. A message left on her home answering machine was not returned Thursday.

FIRED BUT GETTING PAID

Stringer isn’t the only example of a high-ranking county employee who was able to use stockpiled vacation time to extend their pay and benefits.

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