The Saint Paul Pioneer Press
Overtime for St. Paul city workers topped $10.4 million in 2014, continuing a five-year upward trend.
A Pioneer Press review of the city’s payroll data found overtime payouts rose last year more than 11 percent, from $9.3 million in 2013. It is the most St. Paul has paid out in overtime since 2008, the year the city hosted the Republican National Convention.
City officials blame much of the increase on the harsh winter of early 2014 and retirements within the fire department. The agency with traditionally the biggest amount of overtime, the police department, experienced a slight decrease last year.
But overall overtime paid out by the city has been on a steady increase since it dropped to $7 million in 2009 from $11.3 million in 2008.
That upward trend concerns St. Paul City Council President Russ Stark.
“It’s about understanding what’s going on,” Stark said. “At times in different departments, they may be understaffed for a period of time. They’re using overtime so that essentially fewer people are doing more work.”
Longtime City Council member Dan Bostrom said that in his experience city expenses are prone to cyclical peaks and valleys. What is best for cities, Bostrom said, is to budget realistically rather than for a catastrophe.
“You can’t plan for that 100-year flood or that 50-year snowstorm every year, or you just simply break the budget,” he said.
Bostrom said he expects overtime costs to stabilize, barring any 100-year floods or 50-year snowstorms.
Overall, St. Paul’s total payroll expense rose to $204.8 million in 2014, from the previous year’s $199.6 million. For 2014, the city adopted an overall budget of $576 million.
STAFF STRETCHED THIN
The brutal winter months of early 2014 stretched city staffing thin, officials said.
Public Works staff were called in repeatedly to clear snow, helping to ring up $1.36 million in overtime for the year. That is a 53 percent increase over 2013.
Meanwhile, responding to frozen water pipes contributed to St. Paul Regional Water Services workers collecting $1.1 million overtime in 2014. That is an 18 percent increase over the year before.
At the St. Paul Fire Department, overtime expense rose to $3.03 million. The Mayor’s office said the rise was due to “higher than normal retirements and other attrition.” Despite this, the mayor’s office said, the department was able to come in under budget on salary spending.
Eighteen rank-and-file firefighters retired in 2014, said Steve Zaccard, the city’s fire marshal. The academy graduates a class every year, and so until then, the department has to do more with less. After-hours training sessions also drove up overtime costs, Zaccard said, with those costs subsidized by grants from the state and federal governments.
Police overtime costs fell slightly in 2014, to $3.96 million.
In 2008, overtime for city workers, particularly the police force, was driven by city support for the Republican National Convention. A federal grant covered $3.86 million of the cost to the city. Since then, the police force has curtailed its overtime and relied on grants and outside contracts to cover additional costs. Between 2011 and 2013, $5.8 million of the city’s total overtime cost has been covered by grants.
FIRE DEPARTMENT O.T.
As a group, deputy and district fire chiefs took in the largest overtime payouts in 2014 of any job position. Together, the five deputy fire chiefs earned $183,000 in overtime, for an average payout of $36,700 per person. Similarly, 10 district chiefs raked in $266,000 in overtime, averaging $26,600 per chief.
Seven of the 10 highest-paid employees overall within city government were supervisors within the fire department. Boosted by overtime pay, those seven supervisors individually earned more than their bosses, Fire Chief Tim Butler and Mayor Chris Coleman.
Deputy and district fire chiefs enjoy a contract clause that guarantees the supervisors 192 overtime hours per year. In the past, fire supervisors have been accused of using overtime hours to inflate their pensions. Minnesota’s pension formula is based on the highest five consecutive years of a person’s salary.
“I don’t know enough today to say if that is a problem, but it kind of stands out to me as something we need to look further into,” Stark said.
Follow Dan Bauman at twitter.com/danbauman77.