Sacramento Fire Department heats up in OT
The capital's fire department is scrutinized for overtime payments, complaint handling
Employees of the Sacramento Fire Department raked in $7 million in overtime dough last year without any formal approval from supervisors, prompting city officials to launch an investigation into how the department approves such time-and-a-half requests.
The department accounted for nearly 53 percent of all overtime paid by the city in 2012, more than doubling the Sacramento Police Department’s $2.5 million in overtime expenses and vastly outspending smaller departments, a city audit of incentive pay shows.
In his December 6 presentation to a city council subcommittee, City Auditor Jorge Oseguera said he wasn’t questioning the appropriateness of the more than 150,000 hours of overtime that fire personnel worked last year.
“We’re just pointing out that the volume warrants there be appropriate controls in place to ensure that that time is accounted for appropriately and accurately,” he said.
Oseguera noted that fire department supervisors don’t formally approve employee time sheets and that the department’s time-reporting system couldn’t record such approvals if they did. One employee was also given “excessive access” to the department’s timekeeping system, he said.
Oseguera recommended the department put in place a system to show that time submitted is reviewed and approved by someone of rank. As it stands, the information is entered into a unique electronic system called TeleStaff, but not officially approved by a supervisor; it’s just transferred to payroll and then paid out.
Upon seeing the figures, Vice Mayor Angelique Ashby cautioned against greeting the numbers with knee-jerk alarm, saying the audit didn’t consider whether there are possible cost savings to the use of OT.
“Without the full picture, particularly around public safety, that can be a very misleading number,” Ashby said. “There could be potential benefits.”
The subcommittee ordered a fuller vetting of how overtime is approved at both the fire and police departments, the two largest operations on Sacramento’s payroll.
In a later phone interview, interim Fire Chief Dan Haverty said the department has a required minimum number of employees scheduled for every shift, but gaps still exist.
“During the recession there was a hiring freeze and … we are still trying to work out of that to get our vacancies taken care of,” Haverty said.
Oseguera told SN&R that an ideal time-approval system would be determined solely by the fire chief, who then appoints superiors within the ranks—such as assistants or battalion chiefs—to evaluate firefighters’ requests for overtime.
Haverty said changes are already underway to comply with the city’s recommendations.
“[W]e’re working … to redefine various authorizations for access into TeleStaff by rank and role, because it has obvious implications on payroll,” Haverty said.
Overtime issues are not the only area under scrutiny at the fire department. The city’s Office of Public Safety Accountability, an independent watchdog arm of the city manager, has repeatedly cited problems with the department’s handling of complaints against it.
OPSA director Francine Tournour said the police department has an internal affairs division to manage all complaints against the agency. The fire department used to, but dissolved its internal affairs unit in 2008 during the economic crisis to save funds. The responsibility for managing complaints then trickled down to the deputy chief and the human resources unit, but Tournour said supervisors were never properly trained.
“Basically, the system was broken,” Tournour told SN&R.
Complaints against the fire department dropped 25 percent between 2011 and 2012, when the department received 52 complaints, nearly half of which concerned service and discourtesy issues, according to OPSA’s last annual report. But the fire department lacked “effective reporting and investigation protocols” to address them, the report states. Approximately 40 percent of the complaints made against the fire department in 2012 were still pending investigation at the time of the OPSA report, which was published in early 2013.
But some of this may be changing.
Tournour said the department created a position for an internal affairs investigator to begin work in February.
“There has to be checks and balances for everything,” Tournour said. “If the accountability isn’t there, then you run into opportunities to have things go wrong, whether it’s intentional or by happenstance.”
Tournour continues to document both the fire department’s pending misconduct cases for the newly hired investigator’s consideration in 2014. Oseguera said the city council will meet mid-to-late January to vote on the audit committee’s recommendations made last month.