OAKDALE — The highest paid peace officer in Stanislaus County last year wasn't Sheriff Adam Christianson, who oversees an $85 million budget, or Modesto Police Chief Mike Harden, who runs a department of 250 sworn officers.
The top earner was Oakdale police Lt. Vern Gladney, who made $220,785.48 while working for a department with about two dozen sworn officers.
Gladney's pay was inflated by nearly $110,000 in retirement leave payouts. He cashed in more than 1,100 hours of unused holiday pay, 400 hours of unused vacation time, nearly 644 hours of unused sick leave and 67 hours of comp time when he retired Dec. 31 after 30 years with the department.
He is one of seven Oakdale employees who retired last year and cashed in their retirement leave payouts. The payouts cost the city nearly $322,000.
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Gladney said he spent much of his career working nights, weekends and holidays.
"When people are home in bed or home with their family, we are working," he said. "We're working nights and weekends. When you go into law enforcement — it's been a hard 30 years. It takes its toll."
Four of the seven payouts went to firefighters and Gladney. They received the bulk of the payouts, nearly $289,000.
City Manager Steve Hallam said it would be wrong to think of the retirement payouts as giveaways. He said they often evolve over many years as part of labor negotiations between a city and its unions.
He said a union may forgo a raise or accept a raise that does not keep pace with inflation in exchange for a higher cap for the number of vacation hours an employee can cash out at retirement.
But these payouts can be costly, especially now as cities and county governments grapple with budget cuts, state raids on their funding and the effects of a prolonged recession.
About $300,000 of the $322,000 in retirement payouts were for Oakdale employees paid from the city's $9 million general fund. That's the account that pays for basic city services.
The remaining payouts went to two employees paid by utilities and storm-drain funds.
The retirement payouts are not used in calculating Oakdale employees' pensions. The city belongs to the California Public Employees' Retirement System, which calculates pensions based on an employee's hourly rate or salary.
Oakdale is in talks with its employee unions as it prepares for its next budget year, which starts July 1. Hallam wouldn't say if reducing the retirement payouts is part of the negotiations.
"What we are going to ask our labor groups this year, I can't comment on," he said. "But the City Council has given me very specific direction to look at a much more reasonable and sustainable cost for employee salaries and benefits, particularly their benefit package. We are looking at long-term sustainabil- ity."
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2316.