Overtime paid to corrections deputies at the Pierce County Jail has drained the county’s budget for years, and the problem has only grown worse this year.
The county is on pace to pay out more than $3.6 million in overtime for the jail in 2014. It would be the second-highest amount in the past six years, ranking only behind 2012, according to an analysis of overtime data by The News Tribune.
This year’s projected overtime would be enough to pay for nearly three dozen more corrections deputies.
Some of the 235 corrections deputies at the jail in downtown Tacoma rack up hundreds of hours of overtime pay each year, in some cases almost doubling their regular salary and boosting their retirement benefits.
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Through mid-September, 14 deputies had earned at least $30,000 each in overtime this year, in addition to their regular pay of nearly $50,000.
Seven had logged more than 700 hours of overtime in that period. That amounts to working another half-time job.
The budget crisis escalated in October when the jail spent $507,859 on overtime, according to the county’s budget and finance department.
And there appears to be no end in sight. The jail is already short-staffed, and five deputies are set to retire in December.
County leaders are at odds over the crisis.
Sheriff Paul Pastor says the main problem for years has been understaffing. Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy and the County Council have met Pastor partway by approving eight more jail deputy positions for 2015. McCarthy says the sheriff needs to solve the rest of the problem within his allotted budget.
County Council Chairman Dan Roach says the jail also needs to make changes to operate more efficiently. Pastor says some of those changes require contract revisions he doesn’t control; the council approves contracts and McCarthy signs them.
Meanwhile, the jail population fluctuates greatly, and county leaders wait to see if they’ll get some relief by winning back Tacoma’s jail business.
Largely because of overtime, the jail — which is part of the Sheriff’s Department — will amass a deficit of $2.4 million this year. On Tuesday, the County Council is expected to plug the shortfall with added sales tax revenue.
‘THIS IS A MANAGEMENT ISSUE’
Between 2009-13, jail deputies worked nearly 270,000 hours of overtime — with a fraction of deputies clocking a majority of those hours.
The top quarter of overtime workers logged nearly 70 percent of all overtime, according to the analysis by The News Tribune.
Seven corrections deputies averaged more than $100,000 in annual pay from 2009-13, nearly doubling their salary with overtime.
Deputy Bruce Minker ranks No. 1 on the list. During those five years, he earned $290,069 in overtime, nearly doubling his regular pay of $330,964, according to payroll data from the county’s budget and finance department.
He averaged 1,230 hours per year. His yearly hours amount to working 18 months for a 40-hour-a-week worker.
His retirement benefits also have gone up. Overtime increases state retirement because its raises average yearly earnings. He said he will have more than doubled his normal state retirement by the time he quits in mid-2018 — from $3,600 a month to about $8,700 a month.
Minker said he’s not the one causing the overtime problem.
“I’m the poor staff at the bottom of the rung,” he said. “This is a management issue.”
It’s not a new problem.
A News Tribune analysis in November 2007 found that overtime at the jail rose by almost 30 percent, from nearly $3 million in 2006 to more than $3.8 million in 2007. The annualized total for 2007 was more than twice the overtime budget of $1.7 million.
Fast forward seven years. Many corrections deputies are still cashing in on overtime.
Spending on overtime for all jail workers this year is on pace to run in the red by at least $1.1 million.
Because of overtime last month, 68 deputies each earned more than $10,000 in total wages in October.
Deputy Roger Pederson topped the list, earning $22,833 in October. Of that, $7,814 was his regular, straight-time pay.
Through mid-September, Pederson earned $74,910 in overtime so far in 2014, more than any other jail worker. He also topped the overtime pay list for 2013.
Pederson did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
Based on spending through mid-September, more than $3.6 million will be paid out in jail overtime this year. Of that amount, nearly $3 million will go to deputies, who account for 243 of the jail’s nearly 300 budgeted positions.
Overtime for corrections sergeants and lieutenants adds to the overtime woes.
Pastor said understaffing has caused a high level of overtime at the jail this year. Spending increased in October because it had three pay periods, he said.
“This is what happens when you don’t have enough people to adequately staff the jail,” he said.
County Council Chairman Roach, R-Bonney Lake, said the rate of overtime spending in October can’t be sustained.
“The loser is the taxpayer because they (the deputies guild) are unwilling to make common-sense changes,” Roach said.
If overtime spending doesn’t drop, Roach said the council should study moving the corrections bureau from the Sheriff’s Department to under the authority of the executive.
Roach proposed that study earlier in November, but other council members voted against it.
Deputy Brian Blowers, president of the corrections deputies guild, agrees with the sheriff that the main cause of overtime is understaffing. There are too few deputies for the jail’s population, he said.
He cited the layoffs of 16 deputies last year, forced by McCarthy and the council to help fill a $5 million deficit.
He said the guild is willing to discuss changes, but would expect a trade-off in return.
“We’re not just going to give away stuff,” he said. “We already feel like we’ve done that.”
TACOMA JAIL CONTRACT IN LIMBO
While overtime is on the rise, the jail’s revenue has plunged since January 2013. That’s when Tacoma stopped contracting with Pierce County for people convicted of misdemeanors and shifted those bookings to Fife’s jail for cheaper rates. That switch cost the county about $5 million.
The jail’s average daily population has dropped by 14 percent since 2012, to 1,114 inmates as of October.
The number of corrections deputy positions in the budget was cut by 12 percent — from 275 in 2012 to 243 in 2014.
With the loss of Tacoma’s contract, the jail has become virtually an all-felon facility. By law, the jail must take all felons and pay the cost of incarcerating them.
The county has offered Tacoma a package of lower rates to win back its business. Negotiations have dragged on for months with no final word yet from Tacoma. McCarthy said she expects an answer by the end of the year.
McCarthy said the October overtime total is “extraordinarily high” and unsustainable. She worries the county will still be dealing with the same overtime problem a year from now.
She stressed the jail is part of Pastor’s budget.
“The sheriff needs to find a solution,” McCarthy said. “Even before we lost Tacoma, our overtime was extraordinarily high.”
A consultant’s study of jail operations completed in September provides a road map for operating the jail more efficiently, McCarthy said.
“You have to take the bull by the horns and make those changes,” she said. “Currently, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the sheriff. He manages the jail.”
The consultant’s study, paid for by the county, included adding 14 more staff among its 31 recommendations for changes at the jail. Many of the proposed changes were aimed at controlling spending.
Pastor said the study confirmed that understaffing is the major cause of overtime.
A deputy’s post must be staffed 24 hours a day with adequate relief for time off. And if you don’t have enough people to cover that post, Pastor said, “then you’re going to get into overtime.”
“I think we’ve got to make the overtime go down and we’ve got to staff the jail adequately,” he said.
Pastor said the Sheriff’s Department will continue to look for ways to run the jail more efficiently.
“I need to run a safe, secure, constitutional jail,” he said. “I intend to do that.”
SOME DEPUTY HIRES COMING
With the amount of money expected to be paid out in jail overtime in 2014, the county could pay the salaries of another 33 full-time deputies in 2015, even at the top range of pay, according to The News Tribune analysis.
But hiring new deputies is no easy decision, especially when public safety and criminal justice already comprise 80 percent of the county’s general fund budget for next year.
In keeping with McCarthy’s budget, the County Council did add eight more corrections deputies positions for next year and reduced the jail’s overtime budget by $742,000, to $1.8 million.
Roach said he would have liked to add the 14 positions outlined in the jail study, but there wasn’t enough money to do so for next year.
In addition to the eight new positions, the Sheriff’s Department plans to hire eight more corrections deputies in the next six to eight months to fill retirement openings and other vacancies. It takes 32 weeks to hire and train an entry-level deputy.
Another change that could reduce spending is simplifying how inmates are classified for their level of custody. Reclassifying, which is set to start in January, could lead to some inmates needing less-restrictive, less-expensive custody than they get now.
Spreading out deputies’ vacations more evenly throughout the year also could reduce overtime. Up to 10 percent of corrections deputies can be on vacation at one time, according to their negotiated contract.
Reclassification and other changes are expected to help the Sheriff’s Department live within its budget for the jail next year, budget and finance director Gary Robinson said. No budget reductions were made in response to those changes, he said.
In adopting next year’s budget, the Pierce County Council took steps Nov. 17 to push forward changes in the operations study:
• It set up a new council committee, requesting the corrections bureau to report to it monthly. Updates will be due in January on reclassifying inmates, improving overtime tracking and forming a plan to better use the jail’s capacity.
• It requested that two recommended changes — more flexibility in vacation scheduling and converting some corrections officer positions to civilian posts — be included in labor negotiations next year and in 2016 union contracts.
Leaders of the corrections deputies guild told the County Council that changes in the classification system and vacation scheduling must be bargained.
Roach said at the meeting he had run out of patience with the corrections bureau.
“Even the simplest things are met with resistance,” Roach said. “Everything is met with resistance.”
OVERFLOW UNITS STAFFED WITH OT
Corrections Chief Karen Daniels explained some of the jail’s challenges to the County Council earlier this month.
The jail is budgeted for a population of 1,212, but this year it has averaged about 100 fewer inmates than that.
The population fluctuates greatly, however, and the number of males is often at or over capacity. Since March, that has forced the jail to operate one and sometimes two units as overflow units, staffed with overtime, Daniels said.
She said it’s more expensive to pay overtime to the jail’s veteran staff than to hire new, entry-level employees with less costly benefits.
But new staff were the ones laid off at the jail last year; that means what remains is more senior, experienced staff. They also have the highest amounts of vacation and sick time.
Daniels said the Sheriff’s Department needs to add deputies to reduce jail overtime spending.
“You’ll never get rid of overtime completely,” Daniels said. “But to bring it down would save this county an enormous amount of money.”