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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Might Thousands of Overtime Hours Actually Be Saving the Sheriff Money?

Posted by Dirk VanderHart on Thu, Oct 31, 2013 at 1:44 PM

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A single employee of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office accumulated more than 430 hours of overtime from July 1 to October 1. For that work, she netted $25,589 above her regular salary.

The department's top ten workers cleared more than 3,000 overtime hours in the same time—$194,560 worth of work.

In total, the sheriff's office logged 31,181 overtime hours—nearly 780 work weeks in just three months. Cost: $2.3 million.

If those numbers shock or concern you, you're not alone. Worries over the impressive salary bumps drawn by jail workers and deputies are old news.

The real surprise—in a presentation to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners this morning— was a fresh contention: Yes, costs have soared, Chief Deputy Drew Brosh and County Auditor Steve March said, but it's not because of overtime.

In fact, they said, overtime may actually be saving us money.

"The prices are essentially equivalent," between overtime and straight pay, March told commissioners. "To be honest, the overtime hour is a little cheaper."

That's because, while the short-staffed sheriff's office frequently has to bring in deputies and corrections officers for extra shifts, it's spending less on health care and training than it would with more employees.

Overtime may be a bugaboo—the reason for this morning's presentation is that the commission now requires Sheriff Dan Staton to personally request overtime money on a quarterly basis—but there are more-nuanced issues in the sheriff's office, March said.

"Focusing on overtime won't provide you with adequate information," he said. "It's the total cost of operation that needs to be considered."

The essential problem: less bodies are on hand to handle rising workloads, Brosh said.

A steady rise in the amount of jail inmates who need to be closely monitored against suicide has required more staffers. At the same time, an increasing number of employees are coming up for retirement, and the department is scrambling to fill positions.

And a troubling problem with jail overcrowding has emerged. Brosh conceded the sheriff's office will likely use new state money to open now-dormant portion of the Inverness Jail in coming months.

Even so, Brosh noted "overtime is trending down."

No one said it explicitly, but the gist of this morning's presentation amounted to: Forget quibbling about overtime cash, we need more money in general.

"That may be the analysis one the sheriff's office is able to tell us where all the hours are going," March said this afternoon.

All of which is not to suggest the sheriff's OT situation is without concerns. That top overtime worker for the last three months? While he refused to give the Mercury her name or elaborate, Brosh told commissioners red flags have emerged around her hours.

"We're reviewing the top one."

March also wouldn't comment on the specifics. "The audit team noticed something that seemed to be out of the norm," he said. "It was referred to the sheriff’s office for investigation."

And Brosh admitted the sheriff's office has issues with employees taking excessive leave—a scenario which creates more work for other employees.

The county's top elected officials, meanwhile, are clearly still concerned about overtime use. Smith drilled Staton and Brosh over the overtime pay, demanding to see names of the top ten people drawing the salary bumps. And Commissioner Judy Shiprack said the numbers raise issues of fairness and integrity.

"There's also a safety issue here," Shiprack said. "This is a lot of working hours. If this were my airline pilot, I'd be really nervous. It's their safety and it's the safety of the inmates that they're supervising."

Despite all this, the board of commissioners voted unanimously to give Staton $784,000 for next quarter's overtime. March expects to release a detailed audit of the sheriff's office before the end of the year.

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