Asheville city employees raked in $1.8 million in overtime pay last year, with some earning more than 50 percent of their base pay. One Asheville Police Department sergeant made $34,191 by working extra hours.
The taxpayer money spent on overtime is a drop in the bucket compared with the $47.5 million the city spends on base salaries for its roughly 1,100 employees. But it's a critical part of the city's annual spending plan that could be overlooked. Overtime spending can be an indicator of bad management or critical understaffing, city officials say. It can also give managers and workers valuable wiggle room to meet seasonal city needs or handle unforeseen circumstances.
Because of the pressures that the sluggish economy has put on city coffers, however, that cushion just got smaller. Officials cut overtime pay from 5 to 10 percent in all but one department for fiscal 2009-10, which started July 1. The Asheville Fire Department — the second largest user of overtime behind the Asheville Police Department — was the lone exception. It is essential to maintain an adequate standard of fire protection, city officials say.
"You certainly have to have an overtime cushion," Asheville City Councilman Carl Mumpower says. "But if it becomes the practice versus the exception, you're using it to compensate for manpower and resource gaps. That's bad management if you're doing that routinely."
Figuring out the best use of overtime can be tricky for cities, which provide such a wide variety of services. Asheville Building Safety Department workers won't often get called out to an emergency, for example, whereas Water Resource Department workers must respond to calls about line breaks. Water department workers who made the most money in overtime last year were focused on keeping the water system up and running and often responded to calls after hours, according to Water Resources Director Steve Shoaf.
"They have a 24-hour obligation to be on call," Shoaf says.
Assistant City Manager Jeff Richardson says the city has a policy to manage OT that helps. Managers receive monthly and quarterly reports on overtime spending, and OT spending is formally reviewed during the annual budget process. While high overtime spending might indicate the need to hire additional workers, says Richardson, that determination requires a deeper look. Hiring additional full-time staff also brings added expenses, such as health benefits, uniforms, training and equipment. It might not make sense from a budgetary standpoint, he says.
"We're looking for judicial use of overtime resources," Richardson says. "It's critical for us to have the ability to use overtime in a judicious way."
Police and firefighters take home the most in overtime pay because of the unusual nature of their jobs and a set of separate rules for their pay set forth by the federal government. In the last fiscal year, overtime for APD officers totaled almost $1 million dollars. That's almost three times the overtime paid out by the Asheville Fire Department, which is next on the list at $344,825.
The APD also has the individual city employees who received the most overtime pay. Sgt. Luke Bigelow, who received $34,191 in overtime last year, came in first overall, and Sgt. Ernest Welborn, who works criminal investigations and is also a member of the hostage negotiation team, earned $32,232 and came in second.
Why all the extra hours? According to APD spokesperson Melissa Williams, much of it comes from the nature of downtown Asheville as a dense hub for events, tourism and transportation. She cites the recent Phish concert, "where we required more officers for traffic and crowd control."
"The remainder of the extra work hours comes through their regular duties, such as longer hours required at the scene of a homicide or a special operation," he says.
Lt. Wally Welch, who manages overtime for the APD, says there's simply no dodging some of its overtime needs.
"There's state-mandated training for the entire department. That's a big one," Welch says. "There's also court duties. That's another big chunk."
Some officers consistently request overtime, and fatigue is "always a concern," he adds. The APD has a policy that officers have to have at least eight hours off between "augment assignments," such as helping with festival security, and their regular shift.
"It's a balancing act, who gets what hours," he says. "Sometimes people will have to give up or not be able to take [overtime] days, and you have others who constantly request it, who need that money for whatever reason. We try to be fair, but also make sure their head's in the game and they don't get burnt out."
But does this mean that the APD is understaffed?
"For the most part we do pretty well," Welch says, adding that the recession has actually helped the situation.
"Back when the economy was good, we had a lot of requests [from the community] for additional assignments, and it was tough to keep up. But now there's less of that and things have calmed down a bit."
Contact Jason Sandford at firstname.lastname@example.org and David Forbes at email@example.com.