When Marietta Fire Chief Tom Dempsey retired in February he got more than just a pension and a pat on the back on his way out the door.
Dempsey, who estimated he had taken only eight sick days during his 30-year career, was able to cash in on 960 hours of unused sick time he had accumulated, which translated into a check for $31,891, according to the city auditor's office.
He's just one example of a public employee getting such a payout.
Just for this year, Marietta city council budgeted $274,907 for sick time payouts for the 12 employees who were eligible to retire. Eight employees will be eligible to retire from the city in 2012, with sick time payouts estimated at $128,839.
With shrinking revenue and concerns about additional cuts from the state, some members of city council are beginning to question the appropriateness of some benefits for city workers.
Council member Harley Noland, D-at large, said employee contracts in place mean the benefits can't simply be stripped away. Still, the benefits could be modified by future contracts.
Sick time facts:
Amount budgeted by Marietta City Council in 2011 for unused sick time retirement payouts: $274,907.
Amount budgeted for 2012: $128,839.
Sick time accumulates at 4.6 hours for every 80 hours of work (about 15 days annually).
Source: Marietta City Auditor's Office.
"I think we have to look at everything, especially with the loss of the inheritance tax in 2013," said Noland. "You simply can't produce a deficit budget and I see no sacred cows.
"I'm glad Mr. Dempsey wasn't sick and that he gave good service for the city but I don't know there will be money to do such things in the future," Noland said.
The inheritance tax, which generated more than $500,000 for the city this year, is being phased out in 2013. It currently represents about 8 percent of the city's budget. Also, local funding from the state has been reduced in recent years.
Concerned about city finances in 1990, city officials negotiated for less pay for sick time, cutting the number of hours that would be paid from 960 to 480. The change only affected those hired after Jan. 1, 1991. Even at 480 hours, its double the amount Washington County employees are eligible to be paid for sick time at retirement.
More than half of U.S. states allow eligible employees to turn unused sick time into cash when they retire or quit. More than a dozen others allow retiring employees to apply the unused sick time to pension credits or other benefits, according to a nationwide review by The Associated Press.
Many city and county workers around the country also receive the benefit.
Proponents of the benefit say the ability to monetize leftover sick days encourages good attendance and is a fair trade-off for what they believe is lower pay for public workers. Research differs on whether public or private employees have higher pay but generally shows that public employees have far better pensions, retiree health benefits and job security, according to The Associated Press.
Critics see the sick time cash-outs as yet another example of government employees receiving benefits that are not available to those who work in the private sector. It's also a benefit that can greatly impact cash-strapped budgets.
Dempsey said he transferred most of his sick time payout into a retirement account.
"It's a nice way to reward someone who has put in years of service," he said. "I was there 30 years and I can count on two hands the number of days I missed ... I missed four days when my children were born; two others for deaths in my family and two shifts from being sick. I had over 3,000 hours of sick time available, but of course, I only got paid for 960."
Marietta Mayor Michael Mullen, who is leaving the office for a city council seat at the start of the New Year, also expressed concern about employee benefits.
"We've reached a point where 80 percent of our general fund is dedicated to employee salaries and benefits," he said. "With reductions in revenues, we're rapidly reaching a point where tough decisions are going to have to be made."
Mullen said cuts to personnel or benefits will eventually have to be considered.
"I don't know where you start but I don't think we can continue the way we are currently operating without additional revenue sources," he said.
Marietta resident Thomas Wendelken, 38, said he gets no sick time benefits at his job.
"If I take a day it's without pay," he said. "But still, if these guys have earned this benefit, they should be able to keep it."
Chad McIntosh, 49, of Reno, said although sick time payouts are generally rare in private sector jobs, he would be reluctant to try to change things for current government workers.
"This is something these guys have worked for and are probably depending on when they retire, so I don't have a problem with that," McIntosh said. "But, if finances are a concern, maybe the city should consider some changes to benefits for new employees."
McIntosh said his employer offers a set amount of time off each year, which can be used as sick time, personal time or vacation.
"I like this system because it keeps people from using sick time for personal time or vacation," he said.
Only 4 percent of private sector companies offer sick leave cash-outs to employees, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, an Alexandria, Va.-based organization for human resource professionals.
At the county level, Washington County Auditor Bill McFarland said the policy is to pay employees up to one-quarter of their accumulated sick time, up to a maximum of 240 hours.
Marietta Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward, said he would be opposed to changing sick pay benefits.
"If people are allowed to accumulate sick leave and they aren't using it, then services are being delivered," he said. "I'd rather pay out for sick time at the end of a career and have our employees at work. That also cuts out on paying overtime to someone else to come in and work for them."
The Associated Press contributed.