BUCK CREEK TOWNSHIP — The former Buck Creek Township fire chief recently received nearly $80,000 for the thousands of hours of unused compensatory time he racked up throughout his career.
The payout raised eyebrows and has township officials considering a cap on comp time for fire personnel in the future.
David Sutherlin resigned from the Buck Creek Township Fire Department on May 27. He joined the department in 1976 and served as chief briefly in 1989 before returning to the helm from 1997 through his departure.
Sutherlin logged 2,355 hours of comp time over 11 years — 2008, 2009, 2011, 2014 and 20016-2022 — which he sought compensation for upon his resignation. That comes out to $79,557.79.
The matter prompted current Buck Creek Township Trustee Jack Negley to seek assistance from the township’s legal counsel, provided by Pritzke & Davis, a Greenfield-based law firm. The firm drafted an agreement Negley and Sutherlin signed on May 26.
The agreement notes Sutherlin had comp time that was never utilized as paid time off and that he and the township agreed to the payment of the $79,557.79. That’s a little more than Sutherlin’s annual salary, which Negley said was $74,000 at a Buck Creek Township Advisory Board meeting Monday night.
Buck Creek Township firefighters, township advisory board member Matthew Kelly and Republican Buck Creek Township Trustee nominee Micki Simunek spent the better part of an hour questioning the legality of the payout at the board meeting.
Briane House, a partner with Pritzke & Davis who attended the meeting, said per the Fair Labor Standards Act and U.S. Congress, compensatory time can be offered in lieu of payment, but that accounts ultimately must be settled.
“Apparently former Chief Sutherlin’s employment was such that it was very difficult for him to use the comp time, and so it accumulated over time,” House said.
He added the comp time Sutherlin was paid for was reasonably documented and analyzed by Seymour-based Reedy Financial Group, which provides financial consulting services to the township.
House also pointed to a 2006 agreement between Sutherlin and former Buck Creek Township Trustee Melvin Branson, who died in early 2021, part of which states, “Time worked over 40 hours per week can be collected and utilized as convenient to the employee and employer.”
Buck Creek Township does not have a policy capping comp time, House noted as well.
Negley said Sutherlin’s payout was based on how the township has historically paid out career firefighters’ comp time as they leave the department.
“This is not only an appropriate resolution to the issue, but probably the only real option available,” House said.
Simunek countered that the Fair Labor Standards Act only allows police and fire employees to accrue up to 480 hours of comp time, but House held firm.
“The claim can be made that you are depriving someone of a benefit in employment and if compensation is not made, it constitutes a taking,” House said of denying Sutherlin the payment before going on to defend the outcome. “…If you wanted to look at it just in the abstract, it’s a reasonable resolution of a potential dispute without any litigation or any other consideration.”
Negley said the township was able to cover the funds to Sutherlin with money that would’ve gone to his pay through the rest of the year as well as money that had been budgeted for a firefighter currently not being paid by the township due to being away on military leave. He added Reedy Financial Group helped with determining how to make the payment.
Sutherlin could not be reached for comment.
Township advisory board member Kelly asked Assistant Fire Chief Rudy Nylund, who’s working with the department’s battalion chiefs to lead the department through the end of the year before a new township trustee takes over next January, to start working on a policy for a comp time cap for fire personnel in order to avoid such large payouts in the future.
“I definitely think we need to think about it sooner rather than later,” Kelly said.
Kelly also said that when a cap is determined, it will be important to have some kind of clause that treats any firefighters at or beyond that limit fairly.
“You’re not going to lose it, but … slowly we have to get those numbers down,” Kelly told firefighters at the meeting.
Sutherlin documented his comp time on time sheets. Brandon Wilch, a Buck Creek Township paramedic and firefighter who represents the department’s professional firefighters in their union, noted the department’s career firefighters use computer software to manage and document their comp time. Simunek suggested requiring fire department administrative staff to use that system for comp time too.