A Spokane firefighter, police officer and supervisor at the city’s trash incineration plant walk into a bar.
They’ll likely be able to pick up the tab with the amount they made working overtime last year. The more than 3,000 people who earned a paycheck from the City of Spokane racked up nearly $12 million in overtime payments in 2017, according to city salary records obtained by The Spokesman-Review. That’s the largest total in the past five years, and an increase of nearly 60 percent over the amount city workers earned in 2013.
In some cases, employees are earning more than a third of their take-home pay from hours worked beyond the typical 40-hour work week.
Eight of the city’s top 10 employees drawing the most heavily from overtime accounts are employed at the Waste-to-Energy Plant, where the city is paying workers who once were on contract with the private company Wheelabrator. Overtime is embedded in their contracts to operate the around-clock-operation.
City officials pointed to a number of factors that have led to the overtime glut. But both Mayor David Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart said the amounts were troubling and needed to be addressed.
The mayor said his administration has pushed hard at the negotiation table to link wage and benefit increases in union contracts to the consumer price index in an effort to tamp down salary costs. He also pointed to revisions to the city’s retirement system over the past several years, the most recent of which was approved in December and altered employee contributions to the fund. The move is expected to save the city $760,000 annually.
Stuckart agreed that the city had worked toward fiscal responsibility under Condon. But he said overtime costs needed to be reduced, and pointed to the increasing number of nonrepresented employees making high salaries as an additional issue, one that he hoped to address with budget reforms that include a salary cap.
“There isn’t a labor issue in the city,” Stuckart said. “It’s the growth of exempt positions that are making more than $100,000.”
In 2017, 215 employees were slated to earn more than six figures as part of their base salary. That number increased from 164 in Condon’s 2015 budget.
Condon criticized Stuckart’s proposal, including what he called the “arbitrary” salary cap at four times the median household income. He also said the salaries earned by exempt city employees compared favorably with other cities in the region, noting City Administrator Theresa Sanders’ $137,259 salary is far less than the quarter-million dollars earned by the city manager in Tacoma, a figure that raised eyebrows in the state’s third-largest city.
“I think we need to have a much more holistic discussion about this, across the board,” Condon said. “That’s not the issue.”
Several departments in the city have begun addressing their overtime costs, including those three with the highest amount of accrued overtime, officials said.
Solid waste disposal
Overtime cost in 2017: $1,287,194
When the City of Spokane took over operations of the trash-burning, energy production facility on the West Plains in November 2014, that included adding employees who had worked for years for a private company.
The city’s books don’t track overtime prior to that year. Spokane paid a certain amount to Wheelabrator, the private firm in charge of operations, based on a negotiated contract with the company. But in 2015, the first full year when the city was responsible for the employees, overtime costs at the facility topped $1 million. The next year, they were $1.2 million, and they stayed there in 2017.
Employees who were slated to earn $70,000 for jobs that included operating cranes, monitoring boiler temperatures and supervising crews instead took home more than $125,000, and the city’s anticipated costs in its budgeting didn’t reflect the true cost of paying that overtime.
Over the past two years, overtime costs at the plant have been over budget by nearly $1.2 million.
Marlene Feist, director of strategic development for the public works and utilities department, said overtime is built into the contracts for workers at the plant, which is in operation around the clock except for planned maintenance outages. The 2016 and 2017 overtime amounts at the plant also included wages paid to employees covering shifts for two men burned in an incident that netted the city almost $60,000 in fines, she said. The city is appealing that ruling.
“I think that, while this is a cost, it’s embedded in some respects for a plant like this to operate,” she said.
The city has repeatedly revised its anticipated amount of overtime at the plant each year, growing from nearly $550,000 in 2016 to a little more than a million in 2018. The city also recently hired a new shift supervisor, Feist said, and an extra control room operator to step in for an absent employee, rather than asking an existing worker to put in overtime.
“We’re getting better at budgeting for our needs out there,” she said, noting that the additional overtime costs haven’t yet affected rate payers. Last summer, when the mayor and City Council approved utility rate increases, they also approved a reduction in fees for self-haulers at the plant, down to $104.50 a ton from the previous $108.
Overtime cost in 2017: $3,495,008
Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said the biggest driver of increased overtime in his department was the unusual retirement of a trio of battalion chiefs.
“Having three vacancies last year, that really exceeded the capability” of our department, Schaeffer said.
Those employees were offered payouts as part of a salary savings plan, he said Monday.
The issue isn’t a new one. In 2009, the city inked a new labor contract that required at least two battalion chiefs on duty at all times. Current fire officials said they still support having those two chiefs working at a time. Overtime began mounting in 2010, and this year, seven battalion chiefs were among the top 10 highest-paid employees in the city.
Two of the battalion chiefs who retired earned more than $300,000 in 2017, when overtime is combined with payouts from vacation and sick leave accounts. Battalion Chief Craig Cornelius, when adding up base pay, overtime and other benefits, earned nearly $316,000, the highest salary paid to any city employee in 2017. Fellow Battalion Chief Bruce Moline earned a little more than $312,000. Both men retired last year, and Moline said much of the money he took home is earmarked toward medical costs.
Former Fire Chief Bobby Williams, who retired in January 2017 after 28 years as head of the department, received benefits totaling more than $267,000.
Schaeffer made a little more than half of the highest-paid battalion chiefs, at $164,000, despite being their direct supervisor. Condon’s pay was $167,357. Police Chief Craig Meidl earned $184,578.
Current contracts prohibit employees of a lower rank stepping in to fill a battalion chief’s spot if they’re off-duty or working a fire elsewhere in the state or country, though Condon said the city has approached the firefighter unions about that possibility in the past.
“There’s other ways to fill those gaps, but they need to be negotiated,” the mayor said. “That has been on the table for years now.”
Don Waller, a battalion chief and bargaining unit representative for the firefighting officers, said the position was a highly technical one.
“The difference is they’re not trained to do that,” Waller said. “With the system we have, we don’t train our captains to that level.”
It also might not make financial sense for the department to undergo that training, Waller said, when portions of a firefighter’s overtime may be covered by other agencies. When firefighters, including battalion chiefs, travel across the county and state to fight wildfires, other agencies reimburse the city for overtime costs.
Schaeffer provided data that showed the city had submitted requests for nearly $500,000 in reimbursements for fighting wildfires last summer, which went toward offsetting the department’s total overtime cost of nearly $3.5 million.
Overtime cost in 2017: $4,604,047
The Police Department has racked up the most overtime of any city department in each of the past five years, though in 2015 it was given a run for its money by the fire service.
Meidl said he hoped the additional 10 officers included in this year’s budget would help address the overtime, which grew from $3.3 million in 2016 to more than $4.6 million last year.
“Our department has aged, because we didn’t hire for so long,” Meidl said.
On top of that, there has been an increased call for security at larger-scale events in town that are worked by officers not on patrol. Some events, like Bloomsday and Hoopfest, have contracts with the city to reimburse some of those costs.
Others don’t, like the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton – all of whom came through town in 2016, but didn’t respond to requests to cover costs.
“It’s kind of an expectation,” Meidl said. “I would not want to be the one department that said, ‘We appreciate having you, but we’re not going to provide security.’ ”
The department has other obligations, including staffing Spokane’s regional explosive disposal unit, which responds to communities throughout the Inland Northwest. Federal agencies cover the cost of the equipment, but the city must pay the wages of its employees who travel, including overtime.
“A lot of it’s going to be the specialty units, and what’s going on in the community,” Meidl said.
A consultant reviewing staffing in the police department suggested last summer, along with a recommendation to hire an additional 44 police officers, that changes to shift scheduling would reduce officer fatigue. Stuckart said it might also solve staffing issues, including overtime.
“Some of it is necessary,” Stuckart said, referencing so-called “power shifts” that patrol downtown on weekends when bars are open late. “But we might also need to say, how do we do scheduling? That’s something that’s got to be agreed to by the unions.”
Still, Stuckart said, those conversations should be happening. Too much overtime could mean lower quality service for citizens, he said, and could leave workers fatigued.
“In certain areas, we’ve done really well,” Stuckart said. “But I think it’s bad for our citizens if our employees are working too much.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Monday, March 26, 2018, to reflect that the amounts earned by two battalion chiefs named in the article came from payouts for unused vacation and sick time. Those employees also agreed to end employment with the city as part of a salary savings plan offered by the city.
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