Sacramento County revenue gathering employees enjoy rare perk -- lottery tickets

Employees at Sacramento County’s Department of Revenue Recovery enjoy an unusual perk – the chance to win big on the job, with lottery tickets handed out by top brass.

The department, responsible for collecting most debt owed to the county, has long used an incentive program to reward employees for the money they bring into county coffers. Internal emails obtained by The Sacramento Bee indicate one particular reward – scratch-off California Lottery tickets – is widely popular.

Department Director Connie Ahmed insists the practice is legal and ethical, noting that managers purchase the tickets out of their personal funds rather than taxpayer dollars. During an interview at her sixth-floor office in downtown Sacramento, Ahmed described the program as a way to boost staff morale.

“Variety is the spice of life,” she said. “Collections is a hard job. People don’t like to hear from us.”

Public policy experts say the practice is questionable.

“What happens if the person wins big? Does that get rolled into their annual salary?” asked Peter Detwiler, a California State University, Sacramento, professor and former longtime legislative staffer.

Rules for the incentive program are simple: collect a certain amount of money within a specified time frame and receive a Scratcher ticket.

Ahmed attributes the department’s success to the program, which also rewards employees with gift cards and lunches. In fiscal year 2012-13, agents brought in $41.3million, $2.6million over budget projections and $1.6million more than the prior year. The county has 150,000 delinquent accounts worth about $252million to taxpayers, according to the department.

Forty-three of Revenue Recovery’s 58 employees participate in the incentive program. When contacted, workers declined to comment.

Officials don’t keep track of how much they have spent on lottery tickets or other rewards because no public funds were used, Ahmed said.

Internal emails capture the excitement of the workers and the competitive nature of the program.

“It’s Kick Off Time!” collections supervisor Renee Garcia writes in multiple emails, attaching a list of top collectors.

Manager Annette Miller wrote on Sept.30 that she would “be getting scratchers at lunch! I’ll deliver later today!” Almost an hour later, collections supervisor Kathy Fenton writes, “I’m getting scratchers today for Branch as well, we are all out!”

At least seven Scratchers were awarded to employees that day and another four tickets were given out Oct.1. Collection agents are instructed to send the amount collected and a confirmation number to their supervisor in order to receive the award.

Michael Colantuono, a veteran municipal attorney with offices in Nevada County and Los Angeles, called the program “unusual,” but said that as long as no public money is involved, “there isn’t an issue.”

But “if they are spending public money, it’s potentially lawful but obviously controversial,” he said.

Ahmed touted the incentives as a way to keep top talent, noting that many of the department’s collection agents have served for at least a decade.

“It’s a way to recognize employees,” she said, adding that they are essential to bringing in revenue. “Our highest collector just broke $1million last year.”

Each clerical position is worth about $250,000, while collectors can bring in between $500,000 to $1million a year, Ahmed said.