Tuesday, March 3, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Clark County officials have talked about the need to reduce overtime costs for at least two years, and when the budget crisis was building last year, the county manager made that area a priority.
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Part of her cost-containment policy put in place in May included a provision that only “emergency situations” or activities essential to the mission of each agency could qualify for overtime.
Now, as the county struggles with a $54 million revenue shortfall, the overtime costs for the 32 county departments and elective offices covered by taxpayers are projected to yet again top the $20 million mark. By the time the fiscal year ends on June 30, the tally is expected to be $20.77 million, to be exact.
At least that’s $1.3 million less than the prior year, county officials said.
“I think the trend is good, but we can always do better,” County Manager Virginia Valentine said. “The department heads took this initiative very seriously, and they’re working very hard to try to cover all the services with fewer people.”
Most departments have managed to reduce overtime by moving employees to fill more critical positions when needed and sacrificing some services, said Don Burnette, the county’s chief administrative officer.
Still, the lion’s share of the overtime reduction, $910,383, came from one area — the judicial system, and 13 other county departments show overtime increases.
The election department, for example, is well on its way to spending 30 times as much on overtime this year as it did the prior fiscal year. Officials say the jump is due to a costly election season last year. Most agencies handed out additional overtime to employees lent to the election department during the primary and general elections.
Overtime has been a hot potato for county officials since an oft-quoted February 2007 Sun story revealed that nearly 16 percent of the 18,628 full-time public employees in the Las Vegas Valley earned more than $100,000 the previous year, many because of sizeable amounts of overtime. The story noted that 410 of the 632 county firefighters parlayed overtime hours into six-figure incomes in 2006.
The fire department, which spent $14.5 million on overtime in fiscal 2008, more than double the amount spent by all of the other county agencies combined, is projected to reduce that cost by $544,000, or about 3.8 percent, officials said.
Some of the fire department’s high overtime cost is the result of union contracts. Labor agreements force the department to maintain minimum staffing levels to operate some trucks and equipment and require a certain amount of vacation, sick and training days for each firefighter.
County Comptroller Ed Finger, who has been keeping an eye on overtime throughout the county, said the fire department reduction is “a small but positive change for them.”
He attributed the drop to the hiring in November of 22 new recruits. That means the fire department is spending about $1.1 million, or double the overtime savings, on new salaries.
County Fire Chief Steve Smith said he’s hoping to further reduce his department’s overtime cost in the future.
“I think we’re making an honest effort at it,” Smith said. “We’ve evaluated all of our programs and made all of the decisions we were able to make while still providing services at the public’s level of expectations.”
Smith said he is now limiting overtime among his information technology staff and rural and airport training officers. The fire prevention team no longer holds public events on weekends or after normal business hours during the week. And before the public information officer is called to the scene of an after-hours fire to deal with the media, the blaze has to be significant enough to justify overtime.
Some of the overtime reductions in the judicial system come courtesy of additional hiring too. The fire department and the courts were among the few areas to avoid Valentine’s hiring freeze that has left 400 other county positions vacant.
No other county department comes close to District Court’s $816,000 in projected overtime savings, a 38 percent lower bill than in 2008, records show. Las Vegas Justice Court, which is managed by District Court administrators, also is reducing its overtime by $94,000, an 11.8 percent decrease.
Burnette praised the effort in District Court and Justice Court, which he said together make up one of the larger budgets within the county. But he said officials there were aided by the mandatory hiring of 65 new positions to support seven new judgeships created by the 2007 Legislature.
Ed Friedland, the courts’ executive officer, acknowledged that having additional employees is allowing some cutbacks in overtime, but he said most of the District Court reductions are coming in the clerk’s office, which processes and images the paperwork filed in criminal, civil and domestic cases.
Friedland said his own projections for District Court show that by the end of the fiscal year he will save the county $1 million in overtime. About $774,000 will come from the clerk’s office. Managers there are making an effort to hold assistant clerks more accountable for their overtime work, as well, he said.
Other county departments, records show, are having trouble managing overtime this fiscal year.
The social services department is to spend an additional $80,000 on overtime, a 175 percent rise over fiscal 2008, primarily because it has been forced to provide more help to families during the economic downturn, Burnette said.
Likewise, the juvenile justice services department is paying out $110,000 more over last year, an 8.7 percent hike, he said. The family services department also is projected to spend $46,000 more on overtime for a 7 percent increase.
And the county coroner is spending an additional $28,000 on overtime, a 25 percent hike over 2008, records show. The coroner is trying to reduce some overtime by having any investigator whose shift is ending hand off his cases to an investigator still on the clock.
Finger said he expects overtime costs throughout the county will continue to decline as department managers look for more ways to save money.
“We have to do everything within our power to control costs,” Burnette said. “Reducing overtime is a big part of that.”