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Overtime pay part of city budget quandary

Hundreds of Baltimore City employees over the past three years have earned overtime pay equal to more than half their annual salary, even as the cash-starved city has reduced overtime payments by nearly a third, an analysis by The Baltimore Sun shows.

Among the highest overtime earners are 36 police officers and one firefighter who took home more than the mayor during at least one of the past three years for which data was available. One officer earned $173,791; another made $153,160. The mayor's salary has risen from $125,000 to $151,700 the last three years.

The city's list of high overtime earners also includes a pair of library security guards who made $29,334 and $24,322 in overtime, and a data entry clerk who made $27,083 in overtime.

The salaries and staffing levels of Baltimore's 15,000-employee municipal government have received intense scrutiny, as city officials look to plug a $121 million hole to balance the budget for the fiscal year that begins Thursday. The city mostly avoided job cuts, terminating 31 employee and contract positions, but the threat of mass layoffs has hung over tense negotiations that reached a climax this month.

City officials note that the city's overtime pot has shrunk from $63.2 million in 2007 to $43.4 million in fiscal 2009. Many departments have put new controls on overtime as budgets tighten, they add.

"Every manager of every division and every section in the city ... knows overtime is something we try to review on a regular basis," said Deputy Mayor Christopher Thomaskutty.

He called the perpetual pool of high earners "not great" but added: "It is a lot better than where we were."

Still, management experts say that the persistently plump payroll checks of a select few city employees suggests some are working too many hours and could become exhausted, making their regular shifts less productive. Also, they say, it creates the perception that management provides a charmed group of employees with opportunities to earn extra cash denied to others.

City officials acknowledge that the system is not perfect but say that much of the extra pay is a consequence of a nearly three-year-old hiring freeze that has reduced the city's staff and requires some employees to put in longer hours to complete their work. They say some employees earn a disproportionately high percentage of overtime pay because their co-workers turn down opportunities to work extra shifts.

Nevertheless, the sizable payments — 77 city employees made more than $40,000 in overtime pay in the budget year that ended in June 2009 — have prompted a city councilwoman to call for an across-the-board cap on overtime.

"It seems as though there is not enough oversight on how overtime is allotted," said Councilwoman Belinda Conaway. "It shouldn't be just a few select people getting overtime."

The Sun compiled a database of about 45,000 payroll records showing each city employee's base salary and the total amount each earned in the three most recent budget years for which complete information is available. While an employee's annual total could include money from promotions, stipends and shift differentials, city officials confirmed that the bulk of the difference between base salary and total earnings is overtime.

Spokespeople for city agencies chose to respond to questions on behalf of employees, many of whom, such as police officers and other public safety workers, are prohibited from talking publicly except through official channels.

The Sun's review showed:

•The city's total outlay for overtime pay shrank by 30 percent over three years, and most of the reduction came from steep cuts to the fire and police departments — which use most of the city's overtime budget because of the urgency of tasks they perform.

•Eighty-eight city workers made more than fifty percent of their salaries through overtime in each of the last three fiscal years, taking home an average of $92,618 a year.

•In the 2007 budget year there were 23 city workers who doubled their salaries through overtime, earning an average of $115,144; That number fell to eight last year, and they made an average of $129,586.

•Top earners included many police officers, but also employees without an obvious reason for working extra hours, such as city library security guards, data entry clerks and mechanics and workers who repair streetlights.

•The number of city workers who earned 50 percent or more of their base salary in overtime shrank from 508 in fiscal year 2007 to 256 in the last budget year, which ended June 30, 2009.

Donald F. Norris, chairman of the Department of Public Policy for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the small pool of workers who consistently increase their salary by more than fifty percent with overtime "may be legitimate," but said it carries negative perceptions and smacks of poor management.

"It looks bad to the public; it looks bad to the people they work with," Norris said. "If you are a manager, you want to be sure that your people are not working all the time."

Some cities have imposed caps on overtime earnings. After frequent news stories detailing city workers making six-figure incomes, San Francisco implemented a cap that restricts employees from making more than 30 percent of their salaries in overtime.

In Baltimore, 817 city workers earned overtime totaling more than 30 percent of their base salary last year. Conaway has proposed a 50 percent cap. Thomaskutty said that instead of a cap, he would prefer to find ways of making managers accountable for extra spending.

Some city employees with high percentages of overtime work in unexpected departments. A deputy sheriff making $34,870 grew her salary to $65,775 mostly through overtime payments in fiscal year 2007, city records show. Last year another sheriff made 75 percent of his income in overtime — swelling a $45,074 salary to $79,006.

Lt. Samuel Cogen, a sheriff's department spokesman, said the city's finance department encouraged sheriffs to rely on overtime instead of making new hires. Managers are now tracking overtime more closely because of a new requirement that supervisors submit a weekly hourly total for commanders to review, he said. But the sheriffs' responsibilities, which include witness protection and relocation, will require some overtime spending, he said.

The city's library system also contains high earners. Roswell Encina, a spokesman for the Enoch Pratt Free Library, said the system doesn't have enough security to staff all 22 city libraries and noted that one high earner, a security guard on 24-hour call, supplemented his $40,000 annual salary check with roughly $20,000 in overtime in each of the last two fiscal years. The guard responds if an alarm goes off in the evening or on weekends, instead of the city police, Encina said.

In some cases, workers assigned to units that often call them at odd hours can rack up high overtime earnings. Thomaskutty said an uptick in overtime spending at the Department of Public Works in winter 2009, for example, was largely due to a cluster of wastewater workers who contended with a 42 percent spike in water main breaks. This year the record snow storms will cause a jump too, though the city expects reimbursement from the federal government.

City politicians have focused for years on police overtime — it gobbles up the most of the city's allotment, and the department regularly spends more than budgeted. Police officers assigned to night shifts must be paid for their daytime court appearances, and the investigation of a killing can't easily be contained to eight-hour time periods. Officers also pick up extra shifts during crime spikes when communities want to see more uniformed officers.

Police spending on overtime declined $13.7 million over the past three years — from $31.6 million in FY 2007 to $17.9 million in FY2009.

Still, the same police officers appear repeatedly at the top of the list of the highest overtime earners, according to The Sun's analysis. Of the roughly 3,000 city police officers, 58 made more than half of their salary in overtime each of the last three years.

"I know it stands out," Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said. "People look at the big numbers and say, 'They are making more than the mayor and the police commissioner.' These men and women are out there working. ... Some of the people on the list hunt down murderers, rapists. They hunt these people down 20 to 22 hours a day."

Bealefeld said the department was able to reduce police overtime by paying closer attention to shutting down special crime-fighting initiatives after they'd been completed. For example, after a rash of gun crimes commanders might order more patrols to bulk up the police presence in a district. But the department would not always "turn off" those initiatives. Bealefeld stressed that overtime reductions won't affect homicide and shooting investigations.

Thomaskutty points out that the reduction in overtime has been accompanied by the lowest homicide rate in the last 20 years.

"I don't apologize for police overtime as long as it is being used effectively," he said. "It is the fastest way to multiply your force." He added that it takes six to nine months to train a police officer, too much time to immediately ramp up police presence in an area with a crime problem.

The city's Fire Department has also reduced overtime spending, going from $11 million in 2007 to a projected $6.1 million this year. Fire Chief Jim Clack examined the department's staffing and shifted roughly 70 firefighters assigned to "temporary details" like administrative work in headquarters and academy training back to fire engines and trucks.

"They were kind of scattered all over the department," Clack said. The move reduced the need to fill shifts using overtime — but the department is still short and closes four fire companies on a rotating basis because they can't be staffed through overtime.

The Sun analysis showed that four Fire Department employees made more than 50 percent of their salary in overtime in each of the past three years: three fire dispatchers and a supply coordinator. Clack trained and hired more dispatchers to reduce overtime but said rapid turnover in the high-stress position means they are still short.

"We have a tough time keeping people in dispatch," Clack said. "We have a hard time keeping up with attrition."

In other areas, like transportation, paying overtime can increase the city's revenues. Thomaskutty said that adding extra or odd hours to the schedules of parking enforcers will net the city more parking violations and therefore increase revenues. (For that reason, he said, the city's parking meter attendants are outside the scope of the city's hiring freeze.)

Electrical mechanics who maintain the city's 72,000 streetlights often earn high overtime salaries, said Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the city's transportation department. Much of their extra work is reimbursed by the sponsors of special events to which they are assigned, Barnes said.

Today, Thomaskutty says, there are more controls in place than there were three years ago. But he watches closely for jumps in overtime spending and sees the same names over and over. "We ask the same questions," he said.

Sun researcher Edin Beslagic contributed to this report.

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