Overtime puts squeeze on local cities' budgets

Firefighters, police officers earn lion's share of extra hours

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

Published:

 

A rash of late-summer wildfires and other unforeseen events made 2012 a lucrative year for a handful of public employees. Records show the top three overtime earners in Clark County’s largest cities made nearly $350,000 combined in overtime.

Firefighters received the lion’s share of the overtime pay in Vancouver, Camas and Washougal. In cities without fire departments, such as La Center, Battle Ground and Ridgefield, police officers were the top overtime earners.

In some cases, the extra pay equaled a third of a six-figure, or near-six-figure, take-home salary. Although receiving overtime is nothing new for public employees, especially among on-call emergency responders such as police officers and firefighters, city officials say they vow to keep costs low; personnel expenses account for more than 80 percent of most cities’ operating budgets.

“The historic model at the fire department is to have constant staffing,” Vancouver spokeswoman Barbara Ayers said. “But we’re interested in exploring other options here at the city.”

This year, Vancouver’s 11-member community resource team, along with a 13-member technical resource team, made recommendations on streamlining fire services in the city. One of the recommendations was to adjust firefighters’ work schedules to match times when the department receives the most calls, which tends to happen between 2 and 5 p.m. Another idea was to send smaller crews in SUVs out on medical calls that were unrelated to fires. The majority of calls to the fire department are medical emergencies, the city says.

But despite calls to cultivate changes in the department, Ayers said, the city can’t plan for every expense. Vancouver’s collective bargaining agreements tend to play a role in how departments dole out specific benefits.

Case in point: Battalion Chief Robert Walker retired from the Vancouver Fire Department in 2012. He was paid $83,718 in “buybacks” upon his retirement, part of a severance agreement, on top of $29,013 in overtime, bringing his overall compensation to $229,990.

Because Walker worked under a “more generous” retirement contract from the 1980s, his overall salary nearly doubled when overtime and severance were factored in.

Meanwhile, another VFD battalion chief, Kevin Griffee, spent 198 hours fighting wildfires in August, September and October, city records show.

He was paid $37,476 in overtime and ended up receiving $218,548 in total compensation in 2012. Some of that money came from state pass-through dollars to reimburse Griffee for his time fighting the wildfires.

But while Vancouver works to refine its fire services, Ayers says, it will take time to transition to new staffing levels. Revising how departments staff themselves isn’t “like a switch that can be flipped on,” she said.

In Battle Ground, where police officers were the top overtime earners, City Manager John Williams points to the various problems cities have faced in recent years keeping overtime low.

One problem, he said, is that overtime is not a permissible subject of collective bargaining. Another issue: Cuts to city budgets in recent years, including to Battle Ground’s, mean there are fewer employees to step up to fill the same number of constant hours.

“What you’ll see with contracts is they mention rotations, how people are called out,” Williams said, “so you might have a city policy on manning levels.”

That was a struggle in Battle Ground, where the city was down five officers in 2012 until two were hired at the end of the year. More relief is expected in 2014, when the city plans to hire another officer.

Still, Williams said he didn’t think overtime seemed high in 2012.

Overtime for wildfires

Vancouver’s weren’t the only firefighters raking in overtime in 2012.

With the hot, dry summer sparking a late-season bump in wildfires, much of the cities’ overtime pay was spent battling blazes, which flared up in such places as Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge, Cascade Creek and Taylor Bridge.

In Camas, the city’s top three overtime earners made a combined $70,777 above their base salaries. Some of the money came from the fire department’s overtime budget, said Joan Durgin, the city’s finance director.

The city had set aside around $293,000 last year for overtime pay but, she said, the city “exceeded the budget.”

“The (fire) department had a lot of people who were injured,” Durgin said, “so they had to backfill those positions.”

The simplest way to do that: assign overtime hours.

Camas wasn’t alone in assigning overtime hours to firefighters. In nearby Washougal, the top three overtime earners received more than $71,000 in combined overtime, bringing gross salaries for three firefighters well past six figures and making two of them among the highest-paid employees in the city.

Although Camas and Washougal intertwined fire services nearly two years ago, the cities are responsible for creating separate budgets for each department.

Because of the late-season fires in 2012, some of the overtime was reimbursed by the state, Washougal Division Chief Ron Schumacher said.

During the height of the summer’s wildfire season, Washougal’s fire crews were gone for more than a month fighting the wildfires, Schumacher said. The city dispatched four firefighters to quell the blazes.

“I would say last summer was an abnormality in terms of wildfires,” Schumacher said. “And that was a big hit (to us).”

La Center police

Three police officers accumulated nearly $30,000 in overtime pay in La Center, a town of fewer than 3,000 residents that boasts one of Clark County’s lowest crime rates.

The last two years have been “grim,” said Suzanne Levis, the city’s finance director. The city has struggled to keep its budget level and overtime has only eaten into the bottom line.

“We haven’t had a normal year for quite a while — a baseline,” Levis said.

Concerns about overtime at the police department were the centerpiece of an internal report on the police department conducted over the summer by Pasco-based consultant Dynamic Pathways.

The report cited one instance when a police officer working during daylight savings time requested an extra hour of overtime. When city officials asked then-Police Chief Tim Hopkin about the expense, he said he didn’t authorize it, the report says.

Hopkin retired in September after reaching a separation agreement with the city.

Incoming Police Chief Marc Denney, hired earlier in the year, has said he plans to take the audit’s findings into consideration moving forward.

Levis said another reason overtime increased in 2011 and 2012 was because the police department was down a couple of officers.

In the future, the department could look at different ways of scheduling officers, Levis said.


Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.

Overtime Pay - Municipalities