NY city budget jeopardized by fire, police overtime
Expected shortfalls in both fire and police overtime savings have spurred a citywide spending freeze
By Leonard Sparks
NEWBURGH, N.Y. — Last year, Newburgh's City Council approved a 2018 budget balanced partly with anticipated reductions of more than $700,000 in fire and police department overtime, which last year totaled a combined $2.5 million.
What has instead been reduced is hope.
At its current rate of overtime spending, Newburgh's police department will fall far short of the $424,000 in savings called for in its 2018 budget.
Newburgh's fire department, which was supposed to save $320,000 in overtime this year, is also projected to fall short of its target.
The expected shortfalls have spurred a citywide spending freeze.
Fire department officials have accused the city of ignoring requests to hire additional officers to fill absences when assistant chiefs, lieutenants and captains take time off, requiring that overtime be paid to officers filling those slots.
But Newburgh's comptroller says the biggest driver is comp time and previous administrations' failures to monitor use-it-or-lose-it rules. The value of time off accrued by firefighters and police officers was between $4 million and $5 million by the end of 2017, according to Comptroller Kathryn Mack.
"We've got to be bold and figure out how to address this issue that's been placed on our laps from previous administrations – non-oversight on comp time," Mack told the Council last month. "A lot of contracts have the rules that say you can only carry this much time, and it was never enforced."
Millions in OT
Overtime paid out to Newburgh's police department totaled nearly $1.6 million in 2017, representing about 20 percent of the $7.7 million in gross department pay last year, according to the comptroller's office.
Gross income, which includes overtime payments, averaged just less than $82,000 for the police department. Overtime earnings alone averaged nearly $17,000 per person.
Two of Newburgh's five highest-paid officers – Ricardo Rivera and Roman Scuadroni – each had overtime pay that exceeded their base pay.
Members of Newburgh's fire department earned roughly $942,400 combined in overtime last year, a figure that is about 16 percent of total gross income for the department. Earnings with overtime average nearly $84,000 per-person, and overtime per-person, $13,700.
In May, Mack warned the council. Police department overtime had fallen by $47,000 as of May 10 compared to the same time period last year, with significant reductions on overtime hours worked by lieutenants, sergeants and detectives. But the decrease would not be enough to achieve the budgeted reduction, she said.
The police union contract that expired on Dec. 31, 2014, required that comp time be used by the last day of the month following the month in which it was earned. Comp time unused by that day was to be paid out in cash, but an employee could request a waiver to use the time at a future date rather than take the cash payment.
Newburgh sought to eliminate comp time through mediation in 2015, but the mediator hearing the case decided to let the city and the police union resolve the issue during bargaining for another contract.
A new, seven-year contract was approved in March 2016, but did not include any changes to comp time.
Fire department overtime was up $18,844 through May 10 compared to the same time period in 2017. While the department achieved reductions for lieutenants and firefighters, overtime costs for assistant chiefs was up by 18 percent and for captains by 41 percent for the period.
Under the fire department contract that expired last year, employees were allowed to accumulate up to 240 hours of comp time during their first seven seven years of service, and 312 hours afterward.
Officers and firefighters brought in to cover for colleagues off due to vacations, comp time, contractual obligations and sick leave were the biggest drivers of overtime costs, according to the city comptroller's office.
Acting Chief Terry Ahlers said he has unsuccessfully asked Newburgh's administration to promote additional officers and hire a "floater" to fill vacancies without paying off-duty personnel overtime.
In 2015, the city promoted two lieutenants temporarily as part of a six-month trial, Ahlers said. Overtime appeared to be going down, but after the six months ended, the city did not extend the trial, he said.
During a discussion about fire department overtime on July 5, Ahlers again called for promotions and new hiring.
Through May, the fire department had spent $158,466 covering vacant shifts for captains and lieutenants, Ahlers said. Overtime to fill just vacation requests for assistant chiefs runs around $57,000 a year, while promoting someone to assistant chief to fill absences would cost $18,000, he said.
"By making an $18,000 promotion, we could save at least $40,000 per year just on the assistant chief position," said Ahlers, an assistant chief whom the city must pay overtime for his duties as acting chief.
'It's not fair'
Additional officers would not be enough to significantly reduce overtime costs, said Mack. She instead recommended a review of the department, including its structure, titles and work rules.
"The savings of $30,000 or $15,000 with regards to overtime is not going to be sufficient enough for us to sustain this budget model that we have," said Mack, who recently told the council that $880,000 in savings is being sought in anticipation of an expected shortfall.
Mayor Torrance Harvey wanted assurances that the spending freeze would not affect this year's plan to repave roads.
He also said that other department heads consider a citywide spending freeze unfair.
"It's not fair that a spending freeze would have to happen for all the other departments when there are two departments that are driving us out-of-budget with their overtime," Harvey said. "That remark doesn't come from me; it comes from department heads outside of the two."
Copyright 2018 Times Herald-Record