Philadelphia paid nearly $200 million in overtime last year as scores of employees managed to double their regular pay or more in the bonanza, and helped inflate the city’s taxpayer-funded payroll by 13 percent.
The amount of overtime was equivalent to the pay of almost 4,300 workers at the full-time median salary not including benefits, according to a Philly.com analysis of the $1.6 billion city payroll for 2013.
That analysis showed that police logged the most overtime, by far, at $66 million. In fact, Melvin Williams, a homicide lieutenant, pulled in $108,026 in overtime, boosting his total pay to $211,444 - higher than the base salary of Mayor Michael Nutter. Williams, a 26-year veteran, claimed the most overtime paid to any of the city’s 31,809 full-time employees
But he was far from alone in logging additional hours on a grand scale. Williams was followed by 13 others who earned more than $90,000 in overtime.
In fact, 600 employees earned more - just in overtime - than the median household income for Philadelphia of $37,000. In other words, those employees saw more in overtime than many of the taxpayers who foot the bill earn in a year. Often, it was a lot more.
And 181 employees managed to double their base salaries via overtime - with some earning much more than twice their regular salaries. Many senior city employees can also see their pensions rise commensurate with overtime. That’s because payouts are based on a worker’s average total pay over the last few years of his or her employment.
One custodial worker managed to triple his base pay from $28,000 to $86,000.
The numbers don’t suggest the overtime was not earned. But they do raise the question, for some, whether the city’s $1.6 billion payroll is being managed efficiently. City Controller Alan Butkovitz, for one, has flagged overtime in the past.
“That is part of the city’s policy, to hold everything together with Scotch tape,” Butkovitz said in an interview last week, adding that the Nutter administration has preferred to pay overtime to hiring more employees. “At least since 2008, the word was budget. Control budget. You can either take it out of per person costs or take it out of overtime, but you can’t take it out of both.”
A spokesman for Nutter said overtime is one way to do more with less in a post-recession era of tight fiscal spending.
'Our guys and girls like OT'
“There’s a tension in government: You want to conserve and watch (the) budget really carefully but also carry out the duties assigned to you,” Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald said. “The positive is you’re not having to employ more people. You don’t have the pension benefits, health benefits that comes with adding more staff.”
McDonald acknowledged that a challenge is weighing per person usage, particularly in public safety departments like prisons, police and fire, where safety becomes a concern to those employees working much more than 40 hours a week.
“You want people to have time off to be refreshed or renewed,” McDonald said.
What is the breaking point for overworking an employee? It depends on which city official or union leader you ask. Some want the overtime, others do not.
“We constantly get complaints from corrections employees,” Butkovitz said of the city’s prisons department, a 2,477 full-time member force, which spent $14,168 in overtime per worker in 2013. “There is a shortage of employees. We had similar phenomena with paramedics. They don’t want to work (overtime) that much.”
That’s not what the city police union’s president, John McNesby, believes of his membership.
“Our guys and girls like OT. We’re down 300 members,” McNesby said. “The workforce is down and the work is still there.”
Where to making a killing in OT: Philly’s homicide unit
The police department is the city’s largest department with 7,688 full-time employees and 945 part-time employees, according to the payroll. It also accounts for the biggest portion of the city’s overtime total: $66 million.
That marked an increase over last year, but it’s difficult to tell if that much overtime is normal over the long haul. That’s because the city asked for a 30-day review before it would confirm whether it would release payroll data from previous years - even though the data has already been vetted by city attorneys as public record.
Fire and prisons are the second and third highest overtime-spending departments. The fire department spent $37 million and the prisons department spent $35 million.
At the same time, it happened to be a banner year for the police department in one major category: homicides.
In 2013, Philadelphia saw a historic drop in deadly violence - a 25 percent decrease over 2012. The police department’s official year-end tally of 247 homicides marked the lowest total in decades.
Despite the big decline in new cases, the detectives tasked with solving them dominated the roll call of city workers who collected overtime in 2013.
The police department’s homicide unit accounted for the majority of top overtime earners, including the top six of all city workers.
Williams, the veteran supervisor who works the midnight to 8 a.m. shift known as “last out,” was the top earner but is closely followed by five detectives who each collected at least $97,000 in overtime. That represents 130 to 150 percent of their base pay, which ranged from $72,000-73,000.
'I don't want you to go home'
In an interview with Philly.com, Commissioner Charles Ramsey said homicide detectives tend to collect the most overtime annually. He also credited the homicide unit with achieving a 70.4-percent “clearance rate” in 2013 — murder cases that resulted in arrests. It’s the best rate in more than a decade.
“If working the case, I don’t want you to go home,” Ramsey said. “The first 48 hours usually tells the story of whether you’re going to solve it or if it ultimately becomes a cold case.”
He explained that many homicides occur in the evenings and early mornings, so the “last out” detectives tend to catch those cases.
“And they go beyond their tour of duty,” Ramsey said.
Butkovitz and other fiscal watchdogs have credited Ramsey with cutting down wasteful overtime spending on officers who must testify when suspects appear in court. Ramsey created a payroll audit unit after taking over as commissioner in 2008 and said he meets with the unit regularly to discuss overtime.
“They do pay attention to spikes and whether OT is necessary,” Ramsey said. “OT is not a bad word, but you want to make sure you’re spending it wisely.”
He said finding the reasons for police overtime figures require a nuanced look at union contracts and staffing levels. In its heyday in the late 1970s, the department’s 8,500 sworn personnel protected a city of 400,000 more residents than today. Now there are roughly 6,300 uniformed officers.
“Our numbers are going in the wrong direction,” Ramsey said. “But we still have the same responsibilities.”