AUSTIN (KXAN) – City employees are working longer hours than ever, and Austin’s overtime budget for roughly 13,500 employees is ballooning. From the Police Department to Parks and Recreation, a KXAN investigation has found several city departments are exceeding overtime budgets and employees, in some cases, are even doubling their salaries.
From fiscal year 2015 to 2016, citywide overtime pay jumped from $64 million to $71 million -- an 11 percent increase, according to payroll records obtained by KXAN.
And this year the city is on pace to spend even more.
In interviews, city leaders acknowledged high overtime pay, defended its use and said officials are working to reduce it. As causes, the city pointed to staffing issues in some departments, employee retention, perennial natural disasters and the need to maintain adequate services 24 hours a day in a booming city that regularly hosts national and global-scale events.
“Many of us are concerned about the overtime numbers. I don’t think all of them are terrible, though,” said District 6 City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan. “I do think there is a role that overtime is the best choice, certainly if you’ve got demand for those hours that are not predictable that you wouldn’t necessarily want to staff up full-time employees.”
Who Clocks in the Most OT
Austin’s first responders often work the longest hours.
Public safety departments, including APD, AFD and Emergency Medical Services, have used the most overtime since October of 2014. AFD tops the list, tallying up nearly a million hours of overtime in that period, according to a KXAN analysis of thousands of Austin employee overtime payments.
On March 30, as fire ripped through the roof of a northwest apartment complex, a third of the responding firefighters at that two-alarm blaze were on overtime, according to fire department spokesperson Michelle Tanzola.
And scenarios like that are not uncommon.
“Overtime is high right now because we have an unprecedented number of vacancies that we have to fill,” said AFD Assistant Chief Tom Dodds.
AFD attributes its overtime to a lack of new job applicants, mass retirement, a federal consent decree and staffing policy, among other issues.
“We need to hire more people to work. And that's why we're really focusing on this current hiring process,” Dodds said. “We believe if we can have a successful hiring process, and have three or four large cadet classes, that this overtime rate will go way, way down.” The department currently has 1,129 firefighters.
Dodds acknowledged the overtime reflects long hours, which can put a strain on those tasked with saving lives. Still, he said, the current overtime load is not putting people at risk.
Nearly every AFD employee earned some level of overtime in FY 2016; hundreds of workers took in more than $20,000 in overtime in last year. In one case, a single fire battalion chief accrued over $86,000 in overtime earnings on top of his $120,000 salary. His job as an incident commander means his pay rate is higher than a regular firefighter, which is what AFD says contributed to his overtime cost.
APD is second on the list of departments with the most overtime in the last three fiscal years. Five APD employees, one officer and four detectives, topped the city-wide list of overtime earners in FY 2016. Four of those men earned more than $100,000 in overtime alone, which more than doubled their salaries last year.
APD said most of its overtime costs are due to court appearances, staffing big events and daily duties forcing officers to work late, among other things. APD said it has received grants to help pay overtime, and, despite overspending on overtime, the department has not exceeded its total budget in several years. The department says the city's rapid growth and recruiting challenges have led to a shortage of officers. Mike Levy with the Public Safety Commission says the city needs 400 more officers to be adequately staffed.
Concerns over excess hours are nothing new.
The City Auditor last reviewed citywide overtime in 2004 and found "controls over the use of overtime are incomplete and inconsistently enforced. (And) the City of Austin places no limit on the number of hours worked."
In an April interview, Assistant City Manager Mark Washington said overtime is something the city wants to evaluate each year during the budget process. “In addition to the cost of labor, we want to make sure that the services that the taxpayers are getting are reflective of the amount of taxes that they are paying,” he said.
Compared to other major Texas cities, Austin’s overtime expenditures appear significant. In FY 2016, Austin was surpassed only by Houston in overtime pay. Austin more than doubled the dollar amounts paid by Dallas and more than tripled overtime pay in Fort Worth and El Paso.
Washington explained that Austin is run differently than the city of Dallas. "We have services that are unique to Austin that may require more labor in terms of responding, so utility. The city of Dallas doesn't own its utility. Or the airport, which is a 24-hour operation, city of Dallas has services in the airport but they don't operate the major international airport," said Washington.
KXAN requested overtime and payroll data from San Antonio, but that city has not yet responded to a request for overtime data.
|FY2016 Overtime by City||Amount||Approximate # of Employees|
KXAN pressed the city manager's office to explain how the city can slow Austin's escalating overtime. Washington said ultimate responsibility for the budget falls on the mayor and city council, despite department heads overseeing their own budgets. "What the city manager is charged with doing is making sure that the services are delivered to the city within the budget authority that the council has given the city manager," said Washington.
In an interview with KXAN, District 10 City Council Member Alison Alter likened Austin’s use of overtime to a canary in a coal mine – it’s more a symptom than the problem itself. It likely indicates recruitment and retention issues, she said.
“We also need to solve this because it does have fiscal implications, and if we can save three or four million dollars a year by not having excess overtime, we need to do that,” Alter said.
When asked if taxpayers should be concerned that the city is mismanaging overtime, Alter responded, “I'm not sure that the conclusion I would make is that we're mismanaging overtime, as much as we have challenges as a growing city that we need to address."
Each city department budgets the amount of overtime it uses each fiscal year. KXAN found many departments have exceeded those yearly budgets.
District 9 City Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said the city is focused on bringing down overtime expenditure, particularly at APD and AFD, where it is used the most.
“I would really emphasize that our police chief and our fire chief and our city manager are all completely committed to reducing this cost,” Tovo told KXAN in April. “In my opinion, they are very interested in seeing that those costs come down and are replaced by permanent staff members.”
You can read a statement from some of the top 10 overtime departments here.
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