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We’re over Baltimore’s overtime problem

Volunteers fill a flatbed trailer with trash collected from alleys near Fulton Ave Monday morning. They were inspired to come out and help by Scott Presler, a Republican activist who organized the cleanup via Twitter.
Volunteers fill a flatbed trailer with trash collected from alleys near Fulton Ave Monday morning. They were inspired to come out and help by Scott Presler, a Republican activist who organized the cleanup via Twitter. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Three days after Republican activist Scott Presler and his conservative clean-up crew made their fourth sojourn to Baltimore to pick up litter — more a photo op in support of Donald Trump than an act of concern — we learned that some actual city trash collectors are collecting overtime for hours they haven’t worked.

You’re not making our job easy, Baltimore. While we rose to your defense after the president called the city “a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess” and a “dangerous & filthy place,” it’s tough to keep fighting that good fight when the City Council’s most publicized response to Baltimore’s trash problem is the passage of a ban on plastic bags; a Sun analysis reveals that many citizen requests for alley cleanup are going unaddressed; and now it’s shown that garbage collectors are gaming the system.

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Don’t get us wrong; we’re pleased that Baltimore has the skills to uncover waste and mismanagement, as it did here, in a 29-page report released Tuesday by the city’s Office of the Inspector General. But we’re not yet convinced it has the wherewithal to fix it.

According to the report, the Department of Public Works Bureau of Solid Waste more than tripled its allotted overtime budget in Fiscal Year 2018, to $1.5 million from $406,000, largely because of 16 vacant position in collections operations — including five critical truck operation spots that require a commercial driver’s license — and dubious accounting practices. The latter includes supervisors fudging time sheets and a practice of counting hours not based on the real time worked, but the number of routes completed.

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In its response to the report, Deputy Director of DPW Matthew W. Garbark thanked the OIG “for examining this information” and agreed “that relying heavily on overtime is a problem.” He said the agency is “swiftly addressing these issues and creating sustainable solutions to prevent future negligence” and “creating an Office of Quality Assurance to create a check-and-balance within the department.”

He also noted that the Bureau of Solid Waste has significant challenges in recruiting and retaining workers, not the least of which is financial.

“The management of solid waste is an essential service that is often underappreciated,” he wrote.

We don’t doubt that. In fact, we feel the same way about journalism. Our industry, too, is understaffed and overworked with daily responsibilities, but journalists have a different cultural approach to overtime: They rarely ask for it even when they’ve worked it. As a board, we’re certainly not advocating that approach for our colleagues or anyone else, but the city does need to make a cultural shift that meets somewhere in the middle.

Baltimore has a bad habit of relying on overtime to deal with staffing shortages. We hear about it regularly regarding the police department, which has doubled its overtime costs in the past five years, to nearly $50 million, or roughly $25,000 per officer. And the Baltimore City Fired Department blew through its overtime budget in at least the last two fiscal years, nearly doubling it in one year.

Some have blamed the ballooning payments on a lack of accountability and oversight by the city’s administration, specifically the demise of data-collection program CitiStat, which once put pressure on agency heads to track performance and demonstrate efficiency.

When Jack Young became mayor this spring, he launched a version of the program targeting trash, called “CleanStat.” It’s supposed to enable a data-driven review of Baltimore efforts to handle trash, litter and illegal dumping.

Since September, the mayor says DPW has reduced a cleaning backlog by half and is using the data to identify areas where the most illegal dumping happens to target their response. But the department was still woefully behind in requests to clean streets and alleys, according to the CleanStat data dashboard on Wednesday, meeting 47% of the requests on time.

We don’t expect an overnight fix for any of these overtime issues. But it’s clear that overtime is no solution to worker vacancies, especially in the public safety sector, where too many hours on the job not only jeopardizes the worker’s safety, but the public’s too.

It’s true that staffing is a challenge in police work and emergency work, as well as trash collection; there’s no doubt about it. But the reliance on overtime has clearly led some employees to come to count on it as a paycheck booster and others to assume they have a right to it, even when they haven’t put in the hours.

It’s up to agency heads to send a clear message that overtime is the exception, not the rule. They must crackdown on abuses with internal checks and balances, and put the bulk of their energies into efficiency, recruitment and retention.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison made a dent in his department’s problem this fall by introducing rules that banned officers on light duty from working overtime. It’s a commonsense reform that fire and solid waste could learn from — and something that shouldn’t have been occurring in the first place.

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We’re rooting for Baltimore, but the city’s got help itself. Let’s not give the Scott Preslers of the world a reason to return.

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