OT pay taxing city's budget

At current pace, Baltimore will double amount it had planned on

December 01, 2005|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

Baltimore city government has spent almost as much in overtime in four months as it had expected to pay out for the entire 12-month fiscal year, continuing a pattern that leaves the city's annual budgets in need of last-minute relief.

City managers doled out $12.9 million in overtime from July 1 through the end of October, more than three-quarters of the $16 million budgeted for the entire fiscal year, records provided by the mayor's office show.

At that pace, the city will spend more than double what it had planned for overtime by June 30, the end of the current budget year.

Driven largely by the Police Department, overtime expenses will likely force another showdown in the City Council in June when the budget is closed.

Council members groused in the summer when they were asked to divert $20 million in surplus funds to agencies that had overspent - partly because of overtime.

"It's ludicrous and irresponsible," said City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., an outspoken critic on the issue. "The agency head has to be accountable for his agency and [be] upfront and truthful with the council. If you can't manage your budget, ... you don't need to be there."

Mayor Martin O'Malley and several government experts said paying overtime from the general fund is often cheaper than hiring new workers, especially given the increasing costs of health insurance.

Used extensively in the private sector, overtime can also give managers more flexibility to direct city resources at urgent problems without committing to permanent new employees.

"They have to justify it, and they have to show that they're getting results," O'Malley said. "We use police overtime dollars to increase our deployments, to increase our sworn strength that's out there on the street."

The Police Department spent $8.7 million in overtime through October, more than the approximately $8 million budgeted to last through June. The department has spent $3 million more than it had at the same time last year.

"It concerns me greatly," said Lt. Fred Roussey, president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, who said the department is using longer shifts. "They're totally running these guys into the ground, and someone's going to get seriously hurt over it."

City officials pointed to a new police strategy that began in January to step up patrols in neighborhoods when most violent crime tends to occur.

That approach has paid off, officials said, by reducing violent crime and homicides. But it has also required the use of overtime to extend regular shifts.

Others point out that agencies, including the police, often boost overtime to meet year-end goals and improve crime statistics.

By contrast, the city's Fire Department is spending within expected levels, in part because the number of vacant positions dropped from nearly 100 to about 20, officials said. The Fire Department spent $2.6 million in overtime through October, leaving it with $3 million through June.

Several experts said managers in public and private sectors can use overtime to keep costs down. By spreading work across all employees, managers can leave positions vacant and save enough money over the course of a year to make up for overtime expenses.

Others warn that too much overtime might mean an overworked staff, which can lead to losses in productivity, turnover and burnout.

"It is true that overtime is a useful vehicle for avoiding the fixed costs of a full-time employee; however, that's only the case to the degree that overtime doesn't become excessive," said Daniel R. Mullins, a professor of public administration at American University.

"Failing to hire a new person and continually relying on overtime is not likely to be a fiscally prudent approach," he said.

City officials said they are confident an end-of-year surplus will not only cover the cost of overtime but will also leave enough money for new initiatives.

O'Malley's administration has asked the council for supplemental spending above its budget in past years. In 2004, the budget needed $21 million and, the year before that, $25 million.

O'Malley said setting the overtime ceiling low - even if it's unreasonably low - can help keep spending in line and create a cushion for departments that traditionally go over. The mayor said this strategy could create the appearance of overspending when there isn't any.

"This is a debate we have every year when we put together the budget," he said. "The finance department's fear is if you give the police the actual number they spent last year on overtime, they'll burn through that in the first half of the year."

The city's 15,000 employees generally receive time-and-a-half when working beyond their regular shifts.

Department heads are frequently quizzed on overtime as part of the administration's CitiStat program, which tracks government efficiency. O'Malley said the program has lowered overtime for several departments since he took office.

The transportation department, for example, has seen a 7 percent drop in overtime since 2000.

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. noted that the figures provided by the city do not include the winter months, when overtime often runs high as cities spend extra for snow cleanup. Still, he said, overtime is generally more palatable if spent on public safety.

"I'm going to take a look at it to see where the overtime is taking place," he said. "I'd rather see it out at patrols in the neighborhood than behind a desk."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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