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Gainesville officials debate city employees benefits
Vacation, sick days and holidays are all still under discussion
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Gainesville council may hold evening meetings only

Gainesville City Council members may move all meetings to the evening for 2011.

This year, council members met at the Georgia Mountains Center at 5:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month and at 9 a.m. on the third Tuesday of each month.

Under the new schedule, council meetings would take place at 5:30 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of each month in the new municipal courtroom of the public safety complex at 701 Queen City Parkway.

Council members welcome input and will make the final decision later this month.

Mayor Pro Tem Danny Dunagan and council member George Wangemann recommended the change after hearing comments from residents who wanted to speak at meetings but couldn't make the morning sessions because of work.

Council member Myrtle Figueras argued for choice, saying some residents may still want to attend morning meetings.

"Sometimes people also get confused about when the meetings are for that week," Mayor Ruth Bruner said. "We can try it for this year and see how it goes."

Carolyn Crist



Gainesville employees may be receiving too much when it comes to vacation and sick leave, council members said Thursday morning.

The city's employees receive "standard" benefits, administrative services staff members told the Gainesville City Council as they presented a survey they conducted about sick leave, vacation time and disability packages in 28 similar Georgia governments.

A Gainesville employee earns one week of vacation at one year of employment, three weeks of vacation for one to four years, four weeks for five to nine years and five weeks for more than 10 years of work. Sick leave is one week per year, regardless of tenure.

Though the vacation and sick time is typical in other governments, Mayor Pro Tem Danny Dunagan and council member George Wangemann proposed a review of all benefits during the ongoing tough economic stretch. Any changes would apply to new hires.

"Any way you cut it, the vacation time is extremely generous. I've worked for the private sector my whole life, and vacation time is nowhere near this," Wangemann said. "Because the policy has been in place, you can't give and then take away, but I would consider a change for new hires."

With a benefits plan that doesn't fluctuate with the economy, it's tough to dictate what should change, Dunagan said.

"I keep saying that the government can only afford this
for so long," he said. "Some critiquing needs to be done. We want good employees, and they have to have benefits like everyone else, but what can we afford in the future? This isn't a decision we will make today or next week, but we need to digest it and work it out."

Staff members will continue to discuss how vacation and sick hours accrue over time, how many holidays are allowed per year and whether employees can donate vacation or sick time to co-workers, said Melody Marlowe, the city's administrative services director.

As the discussion continues, council member Myrtle Figueras said, the council needs to remember the employees as "one of the greatest assets of the city."

She said she doesn't see a need to change the current benefits plan.

"I expect the best out of every employee that is here, and I don't think the benefits are overly generous," she said. "I know people talk about how much the government spends. But if you go back and think about how much Gainesville had to cut from last year until now, we expect employees to perform at sometimes greater levels of service than they did before."

City staff will continue to discuss the two current retirement packages. Retirement Plan A, established in 1941, benefits about 75 percent of the city's positions and is exempt from Social Security deductions. Retirement Plan B, created in 1994 for those who don't fit Plan A requirements, does require Social Security deductions.

In the early 2000s, Marlowe began investigating concerns about the affordability and sustainability of the retirement plans in the future, especially with early retirement trends and the unique Social Security exempt status.

The City Council launched a review committee in 2006 to interview local governments and private sector businesses about their retirement plans. In 2008 the council decided to stick with Plan A and make slight modifications for new hires, setting the retirement age at 50 for public safety officials and 60 for other employees.

"We work hard to design a compensation package to take care of our employees, and it is a challenge to balance what employees want and need and being able to afford it from the city and employee side," Marlowe said. "We will continue to monitor it, and it looks like we are in good shape for a financially viable future."

On Thursday, Dunagan asked Marlowe to consider another change in the retirement age given the economy.

"How long can we keep affording for people to retire at 60, which is mighty young in today's time to retire?" he said. "I understand the limit for public safety, but with the regular employees, I'd like to see us raise it to maybe 64 or 65. Even Social Security retirement could be going up to 69, and when you throw in health insurance and what's going on in Washington lately, who knows what that will do to the future?"