Politics & Government

Soaring overtime fattens paychecks of California cops and firefighters. But at a cost

California cities and counties have too few cops and too many wildfires to get a handle on their soaring overtime budgets.

That’s how they explain the $3.7 billion they spent collectively on overtime last year, a 60 percent increase from the $2.3 billion they shelled out for overtime in 2012.

The dynamic means police and firefighters have no shortage of opportunities to pad their paychecks with overtime hours, but for some, the extra work is taking a toll on their bodies and families.

“The overtime our officers are working is becoming a problem for them. We’re at the point where we’re asking too much, I fear,” said Lodi City Manager Steve Schwabauer. Overtime spending in his city is up $1.9 million, or 168 percent, over 2012.

Their long hours also mean they could be pulling mandatory overtime shifts when they roll up to a car accident or respond to a 911 call.

“If something happens on your shift and you’re on hour 20 you’re obviously you’re not going to be like you were on hour two,” said Adam Lockie, 42, a longtime Lodi police detective.

The large majority of California’s 482 cities saw overtime increase faster than inflation. Seventy-nine cities saw overtime costs more than double from 2012 to 2017, including:

Sacramento, where overtime costs rose by $16.2 million, or 117 percent. Eight fire department employees earned more than $100,000 in overtime pay in 2017, including a fire captain who earned $98,761 in regular pay — and $172,744 in overtime.

Los Angeles, where overtime costs rose by $342 million, or 111 percent. Nearly 700 LA municipal employees earned more than $100,000 in overtime pay in 2017, including a fire captain who earned $92,378 in regular pay — and $306,405 in overtime.

Merced, where overtime costs rose by $1.7 million, or 105 percent.

Patterson, where overtime costs rose by $600,000, or 173 percent.

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Sacramento Assistant City Manager Leyne Milstein said a hot economy partly explains the rising overtime. Despite aggressive hiring efforts, the city has 72 vacancies for police officersand 35 for firefighters.

It’s recording high overtime both in its short-handed public safety departments and in its stretched building department.

“You can really see it in the vacancies we have in every department. In a job market with such low unemployment, it becomes very difficult for us to hire,” she said.

All but a handful of California’s 58 county governments saw overtime increase faster than inflation. Some of the largest increases since 2012 came in:

Sacramento County, where overtime costs rose by $14.7 million, or 73 percent.

San Luis Obispo County, where overtime costs rose by $3.1 million, or 92 percent.

Yolo County, where overtime costs rose by $1.2 million, or 68 percent.

Madera County, where overtime costs rose by $900,000, or 84 percent.

The counties, too, are seeing their public safety costs spike because they’re having trouble recruiting law enforcement officers.

“We would happily hire qualified candidates if we could get them,” said San Luis Obispo County Administrative Office Assistant Guy Savage. Almost a fifth of the county’s patrol and correctional deputy positions were vacant last year, he said.

High overtime costs grab attention because they lead to individual police officers and firefighters receiving eye-popping wages. It’s common for local governments to have at least a few rank-and-file public safety officers earning more take-home-pay than city managers and city attorneys.

But local government leaders say the overtime actually saves taxpayers money.

Hiring an employee with full benefits usually costs more than paying overtime, especially since the California Public Employees’ Retirement System began raising the fees it charges to local governments to pay for their workers’ pensions.

They’ve been escalating quickly since CalPERS in 2016 acknowledged that it expects to earn less money from its investment portfolio over time, a decision that caused it to require cities to kick in more money to ensure their employees will get the pensions they’ve been promised.

In Lodi, for instance, the city sends almost 50 cents to CalPERS for every dollar it pays in regular wages to police officers.

“I read a great deal of anger about safety overtime. I think it is really important that people understand that it’s actually cheaper than the fully burdened cost of adding the fully-benefited junior firefighter,” said Schwabauer, who is among the most outspoken city managers in the state in pressing CalPERS to give local governments more options to adjust their spending on pensions.

Paso Robles City Manager Tom Frutchey, too, cited the “change in the new position/overtime calculus resulting from the large increases in CalPERS rates” in explaining the 95 percent increase in overtime spending in his city. He means the city has an incentive to let a position go vacant for some time before filling it.

The overtime might be good for a city’s bottom line and a police officer’s take-home pay, but union leaders say it’s exhausting some rank-and-file workers. Mandatory overtime in particular can stress employees and their families.

“While they are being compensated, it’s time away from home. It’s time away from recovery. It’s time away from them being able to process what they just went through,” said Robert Padilla, spokesman for Sacramento Area Firefighters Local 522.

The state’s recent string of costly and deadly wildfire seasons also plays a role in the increased overtime spending. Local governments often send crews to the wildfires for weeks at a time. They’re reimbursed by the state, but the costs show up in the controller’s data on overtime.

Fresno, for instance, sent crews to seven statewide disasters in its 2012 budget year. It sent firefighters to 18 disasters last year. The city’s overtime spending is up 69 percent over 2012.

Turlock has a crew on a new engine that’s expected to respond to statewide disasters. The city uses overtime to fill in the gaps when those four firefighters are out of town.

“We have some (officers who) love it because maybe they’re single, and we have some officers with families and children, and after a while you get burned out,” said Turlock Administrative Services Director Kelly Jacobs-Hunter. Overtime spending in her city has increased by 92 percent since 2012.

Police chiefs and city managers are particularly concerned about the difficulties they’re facing in recruiting officers.

The California Police Chiefs Association is preparing a campaign to encourage more people to consider a law enforcement career. David Swing, the association’s president, believes the state’s low unemployment rate coupled with recent, nationwide attention on officer-involved shootings is leading some potential recruits to consider other careers.

“We as a chiefs association are working to advance the narrative on policing that is focused on the honor and nobility of our work,” he said.

Tim Davis, president of the union that represents Sacramento police officers, views the rising overtime spending as an aftershock from the recession, when most cities cut their law enforcement staffing and let positions go vacant. Now, with budgets rising, many of them are trying to catch up.

“Around the time the (Sacramento) Police Department was hiring, so was everyone else,” he said. “We’re still having difficulty just keeping up with the attrition.”

Brianna Calix of The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.

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