December 19, 2018 10:50:30 AM
Concerned city council members peppered the city's police and fire chiefs with questions Tuesday about overtime expenses they still believe to be "out of control."
The inquisition brought to the surface some extreme suggestions, including whether the city should charge businesses and organizations fees for special events that require increased police presence.
"That's definitely something we should look into," Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens said during the council's regular meeting.
The city spent nearly $1.1 million in overtime in just those two departments ($470,022 in police and $627,128 in fire) last fiscal year, according to documents The Dispatch obtained through a public records request. Of that amount, more than $300,000 combined went beyond what was budgeted -- a key contributor to a fiscal year in which the city suffered an overall deficit of nearly $881,000.
In just the first two months of FY 2019, which began Oct. 1, both departments have already burned through more than one-fourth of their budgeted overtime for the year, prompting Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin to press them about making changes.
"We've got to get hold of this," Gavin said. "It seems like through two months into the new fiscal year, we're no better off than we were (last year)."
Police Chief Fred Shelton pointed to two fatal shootings since October that prompted increased police presence, also noting that events like Wassail Fest and the city's annual Christmas parade -- put on by Columbus Main Street -- required extra manpower.
Police staffing has risen to 69 officers -- after the council approved hiring five on Tuesday -- meaning patrol shifts are now fully staffed, Shelton said. That could allow him to cut overtime on patrol shifts and assign fewer off-duty officers to special event security details.
"I'm aware of our numbers, and we're trying to find ways to cut in a reasonable manner," Shelton said.
When Gavin, Mickens and others openly questioned either cutting manpower for security details or charging private businesses or organizations who ask for extra security, City Attorney Jeff Turnage said the latter would definitely be an option.
Turnage said a few Attorney General's opinions speak to the contrary, but he believes those are incorrect. He also noted the city already charges Columbus Housing Authority a fee for supplemental security at its properties.
The council, however, did not vote on whether to start charging others extra fees.
Shelton mentioned specific holidays like Christmas and New Year's Eve, when he had planned to use extra patrols for sobriety-check roadblocks and maintaining a visible presence around establishments that serve alcohol. He said he could cancel those, if necessary.
Ward 4 Councilman Fred Jackson disagreed.
"I don't recommend cutting manpower for New Year's," he said. "We need that."
Safety vs. savings
Mayor Robert Smith, speaking with The Dispatch after the meeting, took particular issue with the council's talk about cutting police presence.
He acknowledges the city needs to reduce costs, but he insists there are smarter ways to do it than undercutting citizen safety.
"You have to provide safety," he said. "That should be the No. 1 priority for the city. ... When you have areas with a lot of crime, we need increased manpower. Otherwise, what is the chief supposed to say? The citizens can just handle the problem the best way they can?
"I've asked all my department heads to cut where they can," he later added. "But where overtime is required, we have to provide it."
Smith said he was also taken aback by the notion the city would charge businesses and organizations for extra patrols in the area during special events -- whether it be the Christmas parade or events at establishments like The Princess nightclub or Trotter Convention Center downtown.
"These businesses and citizens, they pay taxes, right?" Smith told The Dispatch. "If you're paying taxes, you'd hope you'd have some services come from that."
Fire Chief Martin Andrews, when questioned during the meeting, presented the council cuts his department had already enforced to mitigate budget overspending.
For example, he said, 75 of his firefighters were accepted to the State Fire Academy this fiscal year. His command staff, however, has decided to only send 11.
The academy cost runs up to $400 per firefighter, meaning the cutback could save the city as much as $25,600.
"This hurts us in a way," Andrews told the council. "But we understand the position the city is in."
Andrews questioned why so much of his payroll is being counted as overtime, claiming most of it is unavoidable regular pay.
Each shift, by law, requires 20 firefighters, he said. Each firefighter works two consecutive two-week pay periods of 120 hours, followed by a pay period of 96 hours (two longs and a short, Andrews called it).
Fair Labor Standards dictate anyone who works more than 106 hours in a pay period receive overtime pay, meaning each shift, as it normally works, produces 20 people with 14 hours of overtime each. Many cities, Andrews said, budget that in regular salary whereas Columbus counts it against his overtime allotment.
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box saw Andrews' point and asked Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle why that couldn't be changed.
"Whether you count it as overtime or not, at the end of the day it's still going to be the same number (amount of money)," Rawle replied.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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