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Audit: Atlanta paid millions in overtime and routinely blew budgets

Overtime expenses at the city of Atlanta spiked in the closing years of Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration and ballooned to $54.2 million in the last full budget year of this term, an audit by the city’s auditor found.

In fiscal year 2017 alone, overtime expenses exceeded budget by $34 million and overtime spending more than doubled over the five years examined by the audit.

The Atlanta Police department accounted for the bulk of the increase in overtime spending over the five-year budget period ending June 2017, auditors found.

Reed, who left office in January after eight years, did not immediately respond to a request for comment made to his spokesman. But the audit noted that in 2015 the mayor said publicly the increases in police overtime were attributed to crime fighting initiatives and efforts to curb violence.

An Atlanta Police spokesman said Tuesday the overtime is a result of security necessary for major events in Atlanta and the number of vacancies in the department.

“We have been using overtime to ensure there are no gaps in public safety,” said police spokesman Carlos Campos.

The City Auditor’s office, however, could not find evidence to support the idea that major events drove a lot of the police overtime costs.

The report by City Auditor Amanda Noble criticized the city for its failure to budget properly for overtime. Over the five year period starting in fiscal year 2013, the amount budgeted for overtime increased only 18 percent while the city’s total overtime expenses rose 106 percent.

Atlanta City Council Finance Committee chair Howard Shook blamed top leadership in City Hall and the police department for the overtime spikes, but stopped short of directly criticizing Reed.

The starting pay for an Atlanta police officer is around $40,000 and auditors found some officers making twice that amount after overtime was included.

“You can’t have people who have a 45-thousand dollar salary making six-figures,” Shook said. “If you do, there’s a really bad problem there.”

Noble issued an initial eight-page report May 21 to assist with the city’s budgeting process for the 2019 fiscal year that begins next month. A full audit report is due in the fall, she said, noting in her initial findings that the police and the next five departments with the highest overtime totals accounted for 98 percent of the city’s overtime expenses last year.

All are 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operations, including the departments of fire and rescue, ($11.3 million), watershed management ($7.9), public works ($3.8 million), corrections ($3.6 million) and aviation ($2.2 million).

Auditors found more than 700 city employees earned more than $20,000 in overtime last year. The top overtime haul was $100,373 and 1,828 employees earned up to $1,000 in overtime.

The police department’s massive overtime represents a breakdown in Mayor Reed’s leadership of the police department, said Vincent L. Champion, regional director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, the local police union.

He said the problem stemmed from years of understaffing the police department. Large amounts of overtime were wracked up to fill public safety shifts and over months and years the practice served to deplete the department’s rank-and-file.

“We are not staffed fully and properly,” he said. “The mayor’s office under Mayor Reed, they were very well aware of this. They did not budget for it. They knew what they needed to budget they just didn’t because if they would of they would have had to admit there was a problem.”

Police Chief Erika Shields has been working to address the findings in the audit and reign in overtime costs, Campos said. He said a real-time, electronic tracking system was created to help monitor who is working overtime and the cost. Employees in the central office are now tasked with monitoring overtime and ensuring overtime is primarily for crime-fighting.

“We have a responsibility to make sure any overtime money is spent wisely and effectively,” he said.

Noble’s auditors found the police department paid more than the federal fair labor guidelines require, by allowing employees to get overtime before reaching 171 hours worked over a 28-day pay period.

The audit noted Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration earlier this year asked to tighten overtime spending and that effort has had an impact. The administration reports the total overtime costs dropped 18 percent in April and May, and included a 25 percent reduction by the police department. Noble office could not confirm those drops.

Noble said the root causes for all the overtime is not entirely clear at this time. She said the recent cyberattack on the city’s computer system made getting reliable data in certain areas challenging.

In her 27 years in government auditing work, Noble said the overtime spike in recent years is the most accelerated she’s ever seen.

“It’s concerning,” she said.

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