EAGLE SPECIAL REPORT
CITY’S SPENDING ON OVERTIME PAY LEAPS
COUNTY IS ALSO SPENDING MORE; CRIME, DISASTERS PARTLY TO BLAME
SUNDAY, AUGUST 17, 2008
Section: MAIN NEWS
BY BRENT D. WISTROM, THE WICHITA EAGLE
Wichita is spending more on overtime pay for city employees than at any time in the past five years. A few workers nearly doubled their base salaries last year, sometimes earning thousands more in pay than supervisors.
The increase is largely driven by rising base wages and emergency work caused by snowstorms, bursting water mains and crime.
Overtime spending also rose for Sedgwick County employees, climbing to $4.9 million last year from $4.2 million in 2006.
That overtime stems largely from staffing shortages at the jail that officials blame on stiff competition for workers.
Overtime data shows extreme cases, such as Sedgwick County detention Deputy Cleve Werner III, whose $36,335 salary became $79,920 with overtime, and city bus mechanic Richard Cooley, whose $38,313 salary last year grew to $70,346 with extra hours.
But The Eagle’s analysis also found about 200 employees who got paid overtime in amounts that total at least a quarter of their base pay.
At least 91 county employees and 71 city employees earned more than $10,000 in overtime last year.
The city spent $3.7 million in overtime last year – up from $3.2 million in 2006. But overtime pay at City Hall still accounted for a smaller percentage of payroll than that of some cities.
For example, the Houston Chronicle found that local governments in the Houston area paid about 5 percent of their payrolls in overtime.
Wichita’s overtime has been relatively flat, running between 2.5 percent and 3.9 percent of all wages since 1998. Overtime pay peaked in 2002, when the city spent $4.4 million.
Both base wages and overtime pay affect the city’s financial health.
City employees generally receive a 4 percent cost-of-living raise each year and up to an additional 2.5 percent performance-based raise. The city also often adds more positions.
Salaries now make up more than 70 percent of the city’s general fund, which is fed by property taxes.
The city’s wages have grown faster than its general fund in recent years.
Former Interim City Manager Ed Flentje’s proposed 2009 budget noted this, saying, “This trend, if unchecked, is projected to lead to unbalanced budgets in 2011.”
Work that can’t stop
When water mains break, workers must fix them to avoid property loss and traffic problems.
When a bus driver calls in sick or takes vacation, someone has to make the stops or people will be stuck on the curb, late for work.
And when detectives are tracking a killer, they can’t just go home and clock back in at 8 a.m.
It’s all overtime.
Although it is virtually unavoidable, the trend costs taxpayers because overtime – typically paid at time and a half – means more money for the same amount of work.
The city’s Transit Department uses more overtime compared to their base wages than any other department.
That’s in part because every route must be served and the city has seven open driver positions.
Michael Vinson, the department’s interim director, said overtime in transit departments is common. But the city has begun a new hiring strategy should reverse that trend. It now recruits bus drivers before vacancies occur so that it has a pool of qualified candidates ready.
David Warren, director of water utilities, said overtime in his department may appear high but has been steadily declining through the years.
With water emergencies, plants that must be staffed 24/7, and sick and vacation time, it’s probably impossible to not tap into overtime.
And some positions automatically include overtime.
Water plant operators, for example, work 12-hour shifts, giving them eight hours of overtime in each pay period, Warren said.
And when people are on vacation or out sick, the job still must be done.
“You don’t have an option of saying ‘Aw geez, we can’t have a plant operator today,’ or ‘we’ll do it tomorrow,’ ” Warren said.
About half of the department’s overtime is attributed to leaks, he said.
Overtime also is fueled by unexpected events, such as the Greensburg tornado, which several Wichita departments responded to.
Cities need to keep an eye out for excessive overtime, but sometimes it’s most effective to pay someone overtime, particularly in positions that are difficult to fill, said Bart Hildreth, a Kansas Regents distinguished professo r of public finance at Wichita State University.
“Sometimes you may give up a little bit on efficiency to get your goal of effectiveness achieved,” he said.
Setting specific overtime thresholds can also contradict the new style of flexible management and be viewed as micro-management, he said.
“There’s no hard and fast rule,” he said.
Optimal staffing level
City officials stand by their overtime spending, saying hiring more workers would cost more because of the benefit packages that accompany each worker.
“I would argue that the alternative to overtime is to have permanent staff at our peak level,” budget officer Mark Manning said. “Overtime is a sign we’re staffed at a most optimal baseline level.”
Overtime use generally runs about $2 million over the amount the city budgets for. But the city makes up for that largely using salaries that weren’t paid because the positions remain open, Manning said.
Whether to hire a new worker or continue using overtime depends largely on how predictable the overtime is, said Bruce Prince, a professor of management at Kansas State University’s College of Business Administration.
“When there’s a lot of uncertainty, I think it makes sense to ask employees to work a little more until the organization sorts out the increase in demand,” he said. “But at some point in time, it could make sense to look back and say ‘Hey, we’re always wrong and we need to go in the direction of adding more resources.’ ”
Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
INSIDE: Higher salaries go to academia, medicine, 8A — Why we are publishi ng government salaries, 2A
Find public salaries online
Salaries are the largest expense in most government budgets. Now you can see how many of your tax dollars go toward public employee salaries by looking at databases The Eagle obtained.
Go to http://www.kansas.com/salaries to look up salaries for 50,000 employees of these governmental entities:
— State of Kansas
— Sedgwick County
— City of Wichita
— Wichita school district (salaried)
WHAT TOP OFFICIALS EARN
More than 1,600 city, county, school district and state employees earn more than $100,000 a year. Here’s what some influential government workers are paid.
(28.52 percent from state funds)
Athletic director, University of Kansas Higheste paid state employee
JOHN TOMBLIN $265,505
(25 percent from state funds)
Executive director, National Institute for Aviation Research, WSU
Highest paid WSU employee
Interim superintendent, Wichita public schools
Highest-paid USD 259 employee
WILLIAM BUCHANAN $169,174
Sedgwick County manager