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Overtime policies push 100 sheriff's officers over $150,000

Overtime policies push 100 sheriff's officers over $150,000 

June 13, 2008

By NORBERTO SANTANA and NATALYA YAKOVSKAYA
The Orange County Register

Over the past decade, Orange County officials transformed the post of sheriff's deputy into a six-figure job based on the belief that overtime was cheaper than hiring new officers.

The department's reliance on overtime enabled most of its sworn officers to earn more than $100,000 in 2007. More than 100 earned over $150,000.

That cost $41.7 million in overtime, on top of the $318 million the county spent on deputy salaries, health insurance and retirement benefits. The overall budget and salaries have doubled since 1997, but overtime expenditures have tripled.

Acting Sheriff Jack Anderson defended the spending, saying overtime is 9 percent cheaper than hiring additional deputies and paying their salary and retirement. The department says overtime saved it $9.7 million last year.

"What you can't negate is the fact that you are actually saving money," Anderson said. "Overtime is cheaper than paying full salary and benefits."

But a Register analysis of payroll records, public documents and extensive interviews has found that:

  • The department calculated its "savings" using the salary and overtime rates of the most expensive deputies. If the department had assigned new deputies to work even half of the overtime accrued by deputy sheriff II's in the jails, it could have saved more than $500,000 per year. If officials had replaced half of jail deputies with more basic law enforcement officers – such as special officers or correctional officers – they could have saved as much as $10million.
  • Policies allowing deputies to work a three-day workweek and to retire early have dramatically boosted overtime costs. After enhanced pensions led to large numbers of retirements, deputies with four days a week off were happy to fill up the empty shifts with overtime.
  • The huge amount of extra hours and the large payouts have contributed to culture and discipline problems in the department, especially at county jails. Despite the six-figure earnings, some deputies slacked off on the job. Now, efforts by sheriff's officials to transfer deputies out of jail assignments and into patrol jobs have fueled union grievances and lawsuits.

Last year, the Orange County Sheriff's Department spent about 12 percent of its salary budget on overtime. That's similar to the overtime percentage paid by Los Angeles County, which is the largest sheriff's department in the nation.

But Orange County's overtime spending is higher than similar-sized departments. San Diego and Ventura, for instance, spent about 9 percent of their salary budget on overtime.

Because of conflicting responses from sheriff's officials about whether the cost of overtime vs. new hires had ever been studied, the Register filed a request under the California Public Records Act asking for copies of any internal studies. That triggered a different response.

"There have been no overtime studies conducted as described," Capt. Mike James replied in a May 15 letter.

"Overtime has become a part of the culture of the public safety folks," county CEO Tom Mauk said in an interview.

"(But) the notion that overtime is cheaper than hiring more deputies is just a best guess. It needs to be carefully analyzed."

County officials across Southern California balance their budgets by keeping unfilled positions on their books.

That's how sheriff's officials can say that excessive overtime spending doesn't matter because they stay within their budget. If those officials removed the vacant positions from the budget, the sheriff's departments would go over budget virtually every year.

A new Orange County sheriff, former Los Angeles County Sheriff's division chief Sandra Hutchens, was appointed by the board Tuesday and will take office in the next few weeks. Hutchens has promised to conduct an immediate review of departmental operations.

Whether the overtime payouts are good policy or bad, deputies are worth every dollar, said Wayne J. Quint Jr., a sheriff's sergeant who is president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

"It is a dangerous job. It is a tough job," Quint said. "It is public safety. It is hard to put a price tag on that."

The human cost
When the 2006-2007 Orange County Grand Jury noticed the large overtime payouts at the Theo Lacy jail, it sounded alarm bells. Grand jurors noted that there are advantages to using overtime – no additional pension or health care benefits must be paid.

But they added, "This savings is offset by the additional costs of overtime pay, and the stress that overtime work could, in the long run, result in an increase in sick leave and poorer job performance."

That same year, an Orange County Register investigation revealed that deputies had been watching TV and text-messaging while a Theo Lacy inmate was slain in the cellblock below.

When the district attorney empanelled a special grand jury to get to the bottom of the problems, prosecutors uncovered an undisciplined atmosphere at the facility. They found that deputies watched television, surfed the Internet and dragged mattresses into guard stations to sleep while on duty.

Acting Sheriff Anderson fired one deputy, placed five others on leave and forced out two assistant sheriffs.

Within weeks, two more deputies were fired during an investigation into whether a Taser stun gun was used to kill a cat.

And last month, prosecutors charged Deputy Jason C. Brant with falsifying reports on property crimes. Officials said he reported that citizens had refused to cooperate with investigations when in fact he had never even called them.

Records show Brant had earned more than $19,300 in overtime in 2007.

Anderson said the department has policies limiting overtime, but acknowledged they seldom have been enforced.

"We know when people are fatigued their decision-making can become fuzzy… . Somehow, their work ethic changes," he said.

$100,000-plus in extra pay
The sheriff's pay is set by statute; assistant sheriffs who have accrued seniority often earn more than the sheriff, even though they don't collect overtime.

But huge overtime payouts to deputies, investigators and sergeants have allowed some rank-and-file officers to come close to or exceed the earnings of top brass.

The top earners in the department last year were assistant sheriffs Charles Walters and Jo Ann Galisky – both earning just under $225,000.

But close on their heels was Theodore R. Harris, an investigator assigned to Dana Point, who made $220,869, or $5,000 more than former Sheriff Mike Carona. The largest portion of Harris' paycheck, $119,855, came from working overtime.

Three of the top-five rank and file earners were stationed at Theo Lacy, with each earning close to $200,000.

Richard D. Ostrow, a deputy sheriff II at Theo Lacy, made $208,745. His overtime earnings, $116,226, considerably outweighed his salary.

William S. Motodera, a deputy sheriff I stationed at Lacy, was paid $196,534. Well over half of it, $106,740, was for working overtime.

Jesse M. Oller, another deputy sheriff II from Theo Lacy, was paid $191,840. The overtime portion of his earnings was $98,842.

The Register sought comment from these deputies, delivering letters to their workplace. None responded to the Register's inquiries.

Quint said the deputies wouldn't comment because the department has a policy prohibiting most deputies from speaking to the media. He also said Harris has been warned by sheriff's officials that he was exceeding departmental limits and has promised to curtail his overtime.

The Register analysis shows that in 2006 and 2007, at least 80 deputies were paid for more overtime than the 24 hours per week the policy allows.

There are no state limits on how much police officers can work. A 2002 national survey showed that only one quarter of large departments limited their officers' overtime. On average, the limit was a little over 21 hours a week.

Around the country, police departments started reining in overtime after noticing that senior officers used extra hours to boost their retirement benefits, which are usually based on the final years of an officer's earnings.

In Orange County, retirement calculations do not include overtime, except for two small instances – time allocated for briefings and for care of service dogs.

e absolute limit that an officer could work without affecting his health is 80 hours a week, said police fatigue expert Bryan Vila, a criminology professor at Washington State University, Spokane.

The Register analysis showed that five officers exceeded that limit.

According to sleep research, the effect of long hours on reaction and decision-making becomes similar to the influence of illegal levels of alcohol in blood.

"Cops don't come to work drunk and nobody would put up with it if they did," said Vila. "But they do come to work just as impaired by fatigue."

On average, the department's top-ranking deputies – deputy sheriff II's – worked 415 extra hours and made $23,757 in overtime in 2007. Sergeants averaged 304 hours and $20,864. Deputy sheriff I's, the entry-level deputies who mainly staff the jails, made $17,221 per deputy in overtime. They averaged 339 hours of overtime. Investigators made $14,131 from overtime, or about 254 hours per person.

Even Quint, who is on formal leave from the department to concentrate on his union duties, boosted his paycheck with $35,908 in overtime in 2006 and $38,548 in 2007. The Register analysis shows that Quint is always paid for the identical number of overtime hours – 20 per paycheck.

Under the union contract, the Sheriff's Department continues to pay Quint's salary. The union reimburses the county for the salary, overtime and benefits.

Quint, who became association president in 1999, said his overtime payouts are approved by the union's board of directors. His predecessor received 6.5 hours per week. As a union president, Quint asked the board to increase overtime payments to 10 hours per week about 8 years ago.

Before he was the union representative, Quint said, he was a sergeant who tried to work at least 16 hours of overtime a week, mostly in patrol.

"I work clearly more than 10 extra hours a week. … If I were to bill the association for the actual hours I work, our bills would go through the roof," he said.

The 'Killer' threes
County supervisors contributed to the spike in overtime costs by enacting two policies that simultaneously shortened workweek for deputies and encouraged a wave of retirements among senior deputies.

In January 2000, former Sheriff Carona approved a 3/12 workweek for deputies. That was a perk long sought by the deputies union but one former Sheriff Brad Gates had resisted because of the difficulty in managing it.

Every two-week pay period deputies work six 12-hour shifts and one eight-hour shift. That leaves them seven days off every two weeks.

"It's difficult to manage," said Former Assistant Sheriff Dan Martini. "It's a killer."

Then, in December 2001, county supervisors enhanced deputies' retirement benefits by allowing them to retire at age 50 with 3 percent of pay for each year served at the department. A deputy with 30 years' service could get 90 percent of his pay at retirement. Under federal law, no one can receive more than 100 percent of pay.

According to figures from the Orange County Employees Retirement System, retirements in the Sheriff's Department jumped from 29 in 2001 to 93 in 2002. Retirements since 2002 have remained at more than 50 a year since, twice the pre-2001 levels.

Anderson said the large number of retirements is creating vacancies that are difficult to keep up with because of the time it takes to find recruits and get them through the academy. "We have an issue with people retiring. We're constantly hiring behind those."

After increasing from $20.8 million to $29.6 million in 2001, overtime costs stayed stable at about $25 million until 2005.

That year, county supervisors contributed again to the overtime payouts when they opted to staff the expansion of Theo Lacy jail in Orange with overtime hours. The overtime budget rose to $33 million.

"Everyone knew we were building a jail," Anderson said of the 2005 expansion of Theo Lacy. "The board (of supervisors) decided not to fund it….So the sheriff decided to open up the jail on overtime."

'Keeping it green'
With all the free time triggered by the 3/12 work schedule, the vacant shifts and little management tracking, deputies began to see overtime as a normal part of their check.

Deputies and managers alike have a nickname for the biggest earners: "overtime whores."

Retired Deputy Simon Kim – who described himself with that nickname – said the sergeants know which deputies like overtime and contact them to fill shifts.

"When you have seven days off, what do you do? I worked overtime."

In recent years the department also became adept at "keeping it green."

That slogan reflects the practice of actively seeking out contract services to keep the hours flowing. One favorite post under the Carona regime was the Orange County Fair, which switched its patrol contract to deputies soon after the sheriff's wife was appointed to the board of directors.

"Every July, it's Christmas for everybody," Kim said. "Even the lieutenants get into the action."

While Kim was eventually sanctioned for excessive overtime, sheriff's officials confirmed they did not have a way to regularlytrack the overtime payouts and hours worked by individual deputies.

That changed in May after the Register's inquiry.

Anderson said a new program had been instituted that sends electronic reports to managers each pay period to allow for individual tracking of overtime.

Resistance to change assignments
The overtime payouts have changed deputies' preference in assignments.

Most deputies have become so accustomed to the schedules and paychecks of jail duty that they are resisting efforts to move them into patrol assignments.

Anderson sought to encourage transfers and promotions out of the jails and into patrol assignments. The deputies sued in court, albeit unsuccessfully, to stop him.

Court filings show approximately 180 deputy sheriff II's in the jail who are eligible to request transfer to patrol. Only ten have done so.

"That leaves 170 eligible personnel who have chosen not to seek a transfer to patrol," county lawyers said in a court filing. "This creates operational problems for the sheriff."

Anderson's plan was to offer promotions to deputy I's who agreed to transfer into patrol. Five deputies took the deal.

Anderson is also fighting the deputies union over a change to the 3/12 work schedule that he says could save taxpayers $500,000 annually.

He wants jail deputies to start their eight-hour shift early in the morning and work through the day instead of starting in the afternoon and working at night, when all inmates are asleep.

Meanwhile, the union is arguing that officials are actually underpaying overtime amounts, saying that the four hours above 40 in the second week of the 3/12 schedule should be paid as overtime.

And another deputy action, known as a "donning and doffing" lawsuit, seeks to recover overtime for the time that deputies spend dressing and undressing from their uniforms.

"Government entities should be paying their workers the legal wage they are entitled to," Quint said.

Anderson has also suggested hiring correctional officers instead of deputies, arguing it could save as much as $10 million each year.

A departmental spokesman argued Thursday that switching assignments to lower-paid officers may not be possible because of different training requirements and the union contract.

But County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Mo orlach and county CEO Mauk both said they want the county's new performance auditor to take a look at overtime spending patterns.

"Someone," Moorlach said, "has to start justifying this to us."

Contact the writer: Contact Santana at 714-796-2221 or nsantana@ocregister.com; Shulyakovskaya at 714-796-7024 or natalya@ocregister.com.