City Of Tulsa: Overtime Overload?

Saturday, November 15th 2008, 7:27 pm
By: News On 6

By Richard Clark and Terry Hood, The News On 6

TULSA, OK -- A News On 6 investigation has had a big impact, even before this story aired.  Months ago, The News On 6 started looking into how much overtime the City of Tulsa pays every year.  What we uncovered surprised us.  It also surprised City of Tulsa leaders with whom we shared the information.   

The Tulsa Police Department has them, so does the Tulsa Fire Department. Tulsa International Airport has them and the Tulsa Zoo does too. Even the Tulsa Performing Arts Center has them. Almost every department in the City of Tulsa has some employees who are making big bucks by working overtime.

"Small engine mechanic, 878 hours of overtime," said Tulsa City Councilor Bill Christiansen.

It's a sore subject with Councilor Christiansen. The owner of Christiansen Aviation at Jones Riverside Airport says the city has had a problem with overtime for years.

"I don't know how, I don't know how you work 2,188 hours of overtime," said Bill Christiansen.

But he was shocked when the News On 6 showed him just how much overtime some city employees are working.

"My answer for you is I think it comes down to management. You know, controlling overtime. You know it's sad that this is what's going on," said Bill Christiansen.

Using an Open Records request, The News On 6 examined overtime records from the City of Tulsa dating back to January 1st of 2007.

The News On 6 discovered almost every city employee worked at least some overtime last year. But we also found dozens of employees who worked hundreds, even thousands of hours of overtime.

For instance, a theatre technician worked 813 hours of overtime last year. A supervisor with the Public Works Department worked 933 hours. But they're not even at the top of the list.

The top ten include a district fire chief, three high-ranking police officers, and five airport safety officers.

In fact, an Airport Safety Officer was last year's City of Tulsa overtime champ. According to the city, that officer worked more overtime hours than he did regular hours, tripling his total pay.

"His normal pay is $37,000, but he's earned an additional $74,000 in overtime? So his real pay is $74,000 plus $37,000? That's unbelievable," said Bill Christiansen, Tulsa City Councilor.

Terry Hood asks, "a man worked 2,188 hours of overtime. How is that even possible?" "Well, there were a lot of hours to that. I certainly will acknowledge that," said Jeff Mulder, Tulsa Airports Director. "Is that person still with you?" "No, they're not," said Jeff Mulder.

Airports Director Jeff Mulder says he can't talk about why the officer in question doesn't work there anymore, but he does acknowledge the airport didn't do a good job of controlling overtime last year. He says one factor was courtesy of the Homeland Security Department, which raised the national threat level and banned liquids from carry-on bags.

He says another problem was trouble finding qualified workers.

"Obviously that was a huge cost to us, and uh it's the balance that we face with some of our public safety issues is that you know we need to meet the requirements but we also have to be financially prudent," Tulsa Airports Director Jeff Mulder said.

Mulder says the airport has cut its overtime by 60 percent this year, by raising the pay for some positions and by re-classifying others, to make it easier to attract workers.

It's the same problem most city departments face.

"We have some employees who have to get down in ditches with raw sewage," said Clayton Edwards, Environmental Operations Deputy Director.

Department managers like Clayton Edwards say it's difficult to fill positions when the working conditions are less than ideal, and the pay is relatively low.

"Finding people who like to work in those conditions, that have the qualifications for those positions, and at the pay that we're able to pay them at right now," Clayton Edwards said.

Whatever the reason, a check of the city's website shows Tulsa has a habit of going over budget with overtime. In the fiscal year that ended in June, the city paid $11 million in overtime, more than $4 million over budget.

The year before, the city paid $9.6 million, almost $3 million over budget.

Councilor Christiansen says the problem is the city is just too willing to pay overtime.

"In my experience, there's always a reason in the City of Tulsa's mind, for overtime. There's always a justification," said Bill Christiansen.

But Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor disagrees; saying overtime is only a small percentage of the city's total employee compensation, which this year is approaching $250 million. She says creating more positions isn't necessarily the answer.

"You really do have to look at the full cost of an employee; it's not just their W2 wages. There's a lot more that goes with hiring an employee than just their base salary," said Mayor Kathy Taylor.

Mayor Taylor says last December's ice storm is proof that there's no way to completely eliminate overtime. She points out that overtime is guaranteed by the contracts the city negotiated with the police, fire and other unions long before she took office.

And she says there are bigger problems to worry about than overtime.

"My bigger concern is overlap. And that is that we have overlaps in our government. We've got a sheriff's department and a police department. We've got a city parks department and a county parks department. Those kinds of things I think are where the real inefficiencies in government lie," Kathy Taylor said.

We should also point out that the City of Tulsa does recoup some of the overtime its employees work. It's through fees paid to the city for things like traffic control at the BOK Center, or even Broadway musicals that come to the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

After the News On 6 brought it to his attention, Bill Christiansen has put the overtime issue on the city council's agenda.

Editor's Note: Click on our City of Tulsa overtime comparison graphs. They will show you a top 10 list per fiscal year of City of Tulsa overtime hours and pay and how much each city department spent in overtime pay the last two fiscal years.