Fort Smith Board eyes controversial change to employee education reimbursement plan

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 221 views 

Fort Smith city employees are facing a potential overhaul of the Employee Education Assistance and Reimbursement program, and it could get contentious.

At the Tuesday, Sept. 27, study session, City Director Don Hutchings wondered “how much more we will ask our employees to sacrifice” after City Finance Director Jennifer Walker shared findings of a recent assessment overseen by herself, Internal Auditor Tracey Shockley, City Administrator Carl Geffken, and the Human Resources department.

In a memo to the Fort Smith Board of Directors, Walker presented the recommended changes, which include the requirement of one full year of employment before eligibility begins; one year of employment after any reimbursement subject to repayment; tuition-only reimbursement with costs for fees, books, and materials being the responsibility of the employee; a max reimbursement of $4,000 per year – the policy is now $1,287 per semester times three semesters per year – a required degree plan that is related to the current job; and reimbursement to the employee only after the course has been completed and proof of completion has been submitted.

Under existing policy, Walker said, the city provided payment upfront for classes, and employees have been allowed to pursue education unrelated to their departments. As an example, an employee in Finance could go to school for nursing and have the city pay for it even though she would likely leave her position to work as a nurse once her education was complete.

City employees are now immediately eligible for the program. If the Board decides to change to the recommended policy, there will be a one-year employment requirement instituted, and employees will have to stay in full-time employment with the city for one full year after course completion.

Staff members who wish to use the program under the recommended guidelines would be eligible to participate whether attending an accredited college or university or pursuing seminars and certification tests in their areas of specialty.

When questioned by Hutchings on the employee impact, Walker said it would “create a cash flow issue for one semester.”

Hutchings said the changes could be characterized as “possibly another punishment to our city employees,” a reference to some of the setbacks staff has faced in recent years as the Board and department heads have worked to make room for a LOPFI pension shortage for Police and Fire and a $480 million consent decree for years-long violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

One of the biggest recent hits employees have taken was a 50% reduction in the city’s retirement matching program. Of the education reimbursement proposal, Hutchings said, “Some have told me they’re not going to do this if they have to come up with the money upfront because they can’t afford it.”

Hutchings seemed alone in his assessment of the new recommendations with City Directors Tracy Pennartz and Mike Lorenz voicing approval. Pennartz said the proposed changes were “more what I’m accustomed to” from a policy standpoint, while Lorenz called it a “more modernized system” that is actually increasing the overall amount of the benefit.

“It’s a change in process, and I don’t view it as a punishment at all. You’ve got to look at it in the aspect that it’s a benefit a lot of employers don’t provide. It’s still an improvement to the benefit we have. I don’t see it as anything but a positive change that keeps us from having these issues,” Lorenz said.

When Hutchings asked Walker to characterize misuse of the current policy, she said, “I think if you were to look at the review, you would be astounded at the quantity of employees who did not follow procedure.”

Talk Business & Politics asked Walker on Wednesday (Sept. 28) for specific discrepancies as well as estimated financial impact to the city resulting from previous lack of compliance. Walker said she could not release the information at this time because the data is part of an “in-draft” internal audit and to contact Shockley for a timetable on when the audit would be moved out of draft. Talk Business & Politics left a message for Shockley on Wednesday, but has not yet received a response.

The Board will consider the policy changes at its Oct. 7 regular meeting.