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Fixing overtime

The Sunday Chron had a cover story about overtime expenses in the Sheriff’s department.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office spent $32.6 million on overtime in Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s first year as the county’s top lawman, $22.6 million of it at the four downtown jails, according to his office.

In a 4,300-employee department, the 67 who earned at least $50,000 in overtime last year accounted for $4.1 million in time-and-a-half pay. Garcia inherited a department that spent $34.8 million in overtime the year before he took office.

The Sheriff’s Office does not have the manpower to do all its work, Garcia explained. The shortage has worsened since a county government hiring freeze went into effect in September, so the office has not been able to replace the 15 or 20 employees who retire or resign each month. A consultant’s report in December concluded the department was 342 employees short.

When Commissioners Court adopted a $1.37 billion budget last month, it also adopted broad policy proposals that included the possibility of lifting the hiring freeze just for the sheriff and the district attorney.

Garcia said he has received permission to hire as many as 100 part-time employees but that he has not yet asked Commissioners Court for permission to hire everyone he needs. “We recognize the economy we’re in,” Garcia said. “We wait for the budget office to guide us as to when to put it on the agenda.” Other county departments are laying off dozens of employees because of budget cuts.

The story’s angle was about how some deputies who are willing to work insane hours can and do make a lot more in overtime than they do on their base salary. Given the shortage of employees and the need for the work to be done, that shouldn’t be too surprising. What’s of more interest to me is the slowly emerging consensus on how to deal with it. The county has recognized that despite the current freeze it’s cheaper to hire more people than it is to pay out massive amounts of overtime. It’s also the case that if you lock fewer people up, or lock them up for a shorter time, you don’t need to do as much of that hiring as you might otherwise. Seems obvious, I know, but changing longtime habits is never easy. A press release from the Sheriff’s office, which was released in advance of the story, is beneath the fold.

Continuing to rein in the spending the taxpayers’ dollars, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia today announced a breakthrough in his effort to control overtime wage payments to deputies and detention officers assigned to guard inmates in the county jail system.

For the first time in three or more years, overtime wages have fallen below 10 percent of the total sheriff’s office payroll. The amount of overtime was $840,454 in the two-week pay period ending March 13, which is the most recent data available.

On the way to that decline, February 2010 was the first time in years that overtime wages in the sheriff’s office fell below $1 million per pay period.

Without a big boost in staffing or a steeper decline in jail population, Sheriff Garcia must continue the decades-long practice of paying significant sums of overtime to his staff to make sure the jail meets minimum requirements for jail staffing strength.

The sheriff said that new policies and cost-saving measures that he developed with his staff have allowed him to slash overtime without sacrificing public safety and compliance with state regulations. Working closely with the county’s Human Resources staff, the sheriff has also developed policies that ensure no single employee works beyond the time their performance is top quality.

“In this challenging economy, taxpayers and county officials look to us to do our part to save money without degrading our service to the public,” Sheriff Garcia said. “I am relieved that we are able to do our part, and we will continue, in partnership with county commissioners and County Judge Ed Emmett, to look for ways to keep this going.”

“Even more progress is coming,” he added. “In the meantime, I hope the law-abiding residents of Harris County will join me saluting the hard work of the almost 4,000 employees of the sheriff’s office.”

Overtime fell even before the sheriff’s office installs a new computer system to make overtime scheduling more efficient. The system is replacing a labor-intensive, antiquated “pencil and paper” way of scheduling overtime.

Also, the Harris County Commissioners Court adopted a policy allowing the chance for the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s offices to fill staff vacancies. The hiring of more jail personnel will allow the sheriff’s office to save money on overtime and overall payroll.

The demonstrated savings are part of cost-cutting throughout the sheriff’s office. The agency’s overall spending grew 4 percent in Fiscal Year 2010, compared to a growth rate of 16 to 18 percent in the three years before Sheriff Garcia took office in January 2009.

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