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Karen Hawes
Karen Hawes

Recently obtained financial records detail $264,000 commissioners agreed to pay their former top staffer for resigning amid the Medstar controversy.

The deal commissioners struck in the waning moments of former County Manager Karen Hawes’ tenure cost Lee County about $36,500 more than her employment contract provided.

A dollar value was never attached to the separation agreement commissioners approved Oct. 23.

Previous projections by The News-Press estimated it would include a $22,500 perk that wasn’t part of Hawes’ employment contract, bringing her total payout to about $250,000.

Those estimates, however, proved low.

Hawes’ was guaranteed the bonus dollars as Lee County government faced public pressure and a federal probe for its Medstar dealings. After 34 years of carrying Lee County’s critically injured, mismanagement caused the helicopter program to collapse in August, clerk of court auditors concluded.

The county wasn’t obligated to give Hawes, who was ultimately in charge of Medstar, any severance pay, if she was fired with cause under the terms of her Sept. 22, 2009, employment contract.

Alternatively, the contract set up Hawes to collect roughly $227,000 if she resigned at the commission’s request on Oct. 31.

Instead, Hawes retained an attorney and worked out a deal that added a full year of tax deferred compensation at $23,000 and another $13,500 or so in perks to her departure.

Commissioners passed the separation agreement without knowing its cost, in a 4-1 vote Oct. 23. It wasn’t until Hawes received her final payout Wednesday that final financial records detailed how the arrangement worked.

• Breaking down the bonus:

Hawes collected a little more than $13,500 when commissioners agreed let her stay on the county’s payroll for 70 days after she reported to work for a final time, Oct. 31.

That money makes up portion of the extra, $36,500, commissioners paid Hawes through special privileges in her separation agreement.

Instead of cashing out her sick and vacation hours — she collects 43 days every year — Hawes was allowed to use the time to keep her name on the payroll from Oct. 31 thru Jan. 9.

(Page 2 of 2)

County Policy 401 forbids such a use of sick days, but commissioners agreed to make an exception for Hawes when they voted in her separation agreement.

The result of that exception, was a pay bump of roughly $11 an hour at a total cost of about $3,800 to the county. Hawes wouldn’t have collected it under the terms of her original contract, which only allowed her to cash in time off at her base pay of $170,000. But by allowing her to stay out of work, sick and on vacation, commissioners threw in even more deferred compensation, that was tacked onto her hourly wages.

Another $5,400 or so was added to that figure, because Hawes continued to accrue vacation and sick days even as she used them while waiting to separate.

County coffers doled out another $4,400 in holiday pay to Hawes — with seven of Lee County’s 11 paid holidays coming over the two months she was on leave.

On top of that, another $23,000 in tax deferred compensation for all of 2013 sweetened the terms of Hawes’ resignation. The IRS increased the limit from last year’s $22,500 maximum.

Hawes wasn’t entitled to the compensation under the terms of her original employment contract, but it was added in her separation agreement.

What came later

Commissioner Tammy Hall moved to rescind her vote for that agreement, stating she didn’t understand the payout was above and beyond Hawes’ original employment contract. The effort was to no avail.

Then-County Attorney Michael Hunt decided against seeking a similar payout for himself, noting that there’s a question as to whether it would comply with state law.

Effective July 31, 2011, state law prohibits public agencies from creating a contract that calls for more than 20 weeks of severance compensation.

When lawyers drafted a contract for Cape Coral’s city manager last year, they limited severance pay to 20 weeks, according to the April 9 contract.

Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass said the next county manager shouldn’t collect severance pay if asked to resign.

“What’s the incentive for someone to do their job?,” Pendergrass said. “If I run for re-election here and lose, they’re not going to pay me anything.”

Mann said he too would “love” to hire Hawes’ replacement without agreeing to severance pay, but that could be impractical.

Without a severance package in place, Mann said, the county might have trouble attracting top recruits to the post.

“Because of the volatile nature of the job, meaning that on any (given) Tuesday morning at the whim a of a three-vote majority they might be removed without cause, these people will not consider accepting the job without a severance package,” he said.

Commissioner Larry Kiker said he would like to see a severance deal that gradually increases over the years someone stays in their job.

“I think for every year you should get an allotted time up to a maximum,” Kiker said. “Even the state agrees you shouldn’t be maxing out people on departure pay, I’m glad to see those days are over.”

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