July 1st, 2009 10:15 AM by Sherry Lee
By ANDY REID, BRIAN HAAS and DANA WILLIAMS
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
A worsening Palm Beach County budget squeeze leaves a political showdown looming for county commissioners and the sheriff over how to rein in overtime and other personnel expenses.
Palm Beach County taxpayers paid more than $23 million in overtime to employees in county departments, fire-rescue and the Sheriff's Office in 2008 - with almost half going to the Sheriff's Office alone.
Layoffs and hiring freezes take the blame for much of the overtime costs, officials said, as past cutbacks lead to extra duty for the employees left behind to maintain existing services.
But with tax revenues dropping due to a struggling economy, county officials will have to decide whether to boost property tax rates to cover expenses, cut services or change the way they do business.
"The sheriff's overall compensation costs are a huge part of the county budget," County Administrator Bob Weisman said. "It's something that has to be dealt with or you can't control costs."
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw says his agency has been under a county-mandated hiring freeze since 2007 and his overtime costs have still dropped two years in a row. Cutting costs has to be balanced with public safety needs, according to the sheriff.
"You want to manage it, which we do, and you want to keep it as low as possible. Some of it is just going to be out of your control," Bradshaw said. "As long as you're going to be short personnel, it's going to happen."
Overtime concerns are already leading to political fireworks in Broward County, where the overtime for sheriff's and fire-rescue employees alone cost nearly $29 million last year. If the Broward County Commission and Sheriff Al Lamberti can't agree on overtime cuts, he could appeal the budget dispute to the Florida Cabinet.
That got the attention of Palm Beach County officials who are taking another look at how much they spend on overtime. Palm Beach County's overtime costs may be lower than Broward's, but many Palm Beach County employees significantly increased their salaries, with rank-and-file employees regularly out-earning their supervisors.
The employees in the parks department, zoning office and other branches of county government directly controlled by the commission averaged about $915 each in overtime.
By comparison, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office averaged about $2,933 in overtime per employee. Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue's per-employee overtime costs were the highest in the county, averaging about $4,459.
Sheriff: hiring freeze leaves PBSO down about 100 deputies
The state's economic woes and resulting dip in tax revenues have Palm Beach County considering more than 200 layoffs. Last year, the county laid off 62 employees and eliminated about 200 vacant positions.
Palm Beach County is now contemplating a more than 15 percent increase in the property tax rate to balance next year's budget.
Avoiding a tax rate increase would mean even deeper spending cuts, particularly to personnel expenses, Weisman said. While the County Commission must sign off on the total $4 billion county budget that includes the sheriff and other county elected officials, it's up to those elected officials to determine how they spend their money.
The sheriff did rein in his budget this year, but he will have to go further next year when the county's budget picture isn't expected to improve, County Commission Chairman Jeff Koons said.
"Next year we are going to have to look at the options we have," Koons said. "He is going to have to sit down with us and figure out how he changes doing business."
The sheriff says the two-year hiring freeze leaves him down about 100 deputies and another 100 civilian employees. Even with fewer people, Bradshaw says he kept his overtime costs from rising.
Still, about one in six Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office employees, or 680 of the 3,838 employees, earned $5,000 or more in overtime for 2008. The highest earners on average were in the agency's Violent Crimes Bureau - their detectives. Violent crimes detectives are often called to work long, odd hours on cases, sometimes going without or on very little sleep for days at a time while a case is hot. The next highest overtime earners were in the agency's Fugitive Warrants division, another group of deputies who are often required to work long, odd hours.
"You don't have the option in the middle of a murder investigation to look at your watch and say it's 5 o'clock, let's go home. You stay until you're done," he said.
The highest overall grossing employee was Deputy Brian Brown, who made $57,427 in overtime on top of a $72,372 salary.
Teri Barbera, spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, said Brown's overtime illustrates just how short-staffed they are. Not only is Brown a full-time deputy, but he also works as a part-time dispatcher during his off-hours - the source of most of his overtime.
"We're short handed in communications so some of our deputies will get trained and get worked there," Barbera said.
Though current budget talks with the county have been smooth, Bradshaw predicts next year won't be as easy. His office is readying to open a new jail and will have to hire more corrections deputies to staff it.
Big OT at Fire-Rescue
The Sheriff's Office may be the county agency with the most total overtime, but the biggest individual overtime earners came from Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue.
The department that ran up the highest average overtime was their Fire Alarm Office, which handles dispatch. Deputy Chief Steve Delai said that fire departments have minimum levels of staffing they have to maintain for safety.
Dispatchers and firefighters often earn high overtime because the department can't function without those minimum numbers.
But it wasn't rank-and-file firefighters who ran up the biggest overtime tabs. It was supervisors.
Six captains in the department's Battalion 9 accounted for not only the highest overtime earners in fire-rescue, but also the entire county. Combined, they earned an extra $282,995 on top of salaries that range from just over $116,000 to about $146,000. The top overtime earner was Capt. Houston Park IV, who earned $65,796 in overtime with a base salary of $118,548.
Delai said the six captains have highly specialized skills — like dealing with hazardous materials — and that the agency requires two on duty every day.
"We have actually looked at promoting more captains in order to having more people to cover that, but it ended up being more expensive," Delai said. "That's one of the positions we've taken heat for in the past. It's a very select group of people, very few people are qualified to do it."
Delai said his agency reviews overtime usage every six months or so to make sure they aren't overspending. He said their overtime costs have remained relatively flat for three years.
"Overtime is not a bad word. Overtime is a tool to keep units on the road and keep providing service, hopefully at the most reasonable costs," he said.