City overtime needs hard look

There is nothing to love about the new city department requests for more overtime funds, especially after Mayor Gavin Newsom called for major belt-tightening in response to the $233 million deficit projected for next fiscal year. However, The Examiner cannot indulge in reflex accusations that “rising overtime costs always reveal departmental mismanagement.”

San Francisco operates with a particularly thorny structure of conflicting city ordinances and regulations, voter-approved mandates and statewide public safety standards. So sometimes it might actually make economic sense to fill staffing shortages using time-and-a-half overtime wages, instead of recruiting and hiring additional full-time employees whose benefit packages could almost double their salary costs.

At this point, the public lacks sufficient information to be confident that the latest $100 million overtime budget request is really the most effective way to get The City’s work done. Needed now is a nonpartisan, in-depth audit of the department payroll trends, comparing overtime spending with other relevant factors such as sick leave and temporary disability costs, duty assignments and shift coverage.

This is the sort of project that has often been handled successfully by the city controller. Fully transparent analysis should be provided when city taxpayers are called upon to fund extra overtime pay during a ballooning deficit.

Four of The City’s six largest overtime spenders — which typically comprise some 90 percent of San Francisco’s overtime costs each year — are currently requesting more overtime pay. The “Big Six” are the Municipal Transportation Agency, Police Department, Fire Department, Department of Public Health, Sheriff’s Department and Public Utilities Commission.

As expected, all departments seeking these hefty increases can provide solid-sounding reasons. The Fire Department wanted the biggest boost — $27.1 million, more than double its $12.9 million current overtime budget. An SFFD spokeswoman cited multiple causes: the department has a minimum staffing requirement approved by voters in 2004; a newly negotiated pay raise bumps up existing overtime costs; there are 40 more retirements than expected.

The Public Utilities Commission requested an additional $357,000 due to large scheduled projects for the Hetch Hetchy water system renovation. The Sheriff’s Department asked for an additional $292,488 more overtime because prison population increased dramatically in the last six months. Muni sought approximately $200,000 more and historically uses overtime to fill in for the lack of drivers.

Only two of the Big Six overtime spenders are not seeking raises. The DPH, which suffers a chronic shortage of nurses, has asked for exactly the $11.2 million in overtime funding approved last year. And the sole city agency asking for less money was the Police Department, which will cut about $540,000 from its $20.8 million current overtime funding. Congratulations to both these departments for showing fiscal responsibility.

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