Atlanta paid $58 million in overtime to its employees last year, a rate auditors said was driven higher by generous overtime policies and outstripping cities of similar size.
The city’s own auditing office found that “generous overtime pay” and mistakes made in how employees were classified contributed to the cost of overtime. The Atlanta Police Department alone accounted for 43 percent or $24 million of the total cost of overtime.
Auditors pointed to poor management of the city’s overtime system, saying it led to mistakes and high costs. According to the audit, released Monday to the Atlanta City Council, 120 city employees who are not eligible for overtime were incorrectly classified as “non-exempt” employees, making them eligible for overtime. The incorrectly classified employees were paid nearly $1 million in overtime during fiscal year 2018. An additional 24 employees were incorrectly classified as exempt and were not paid the overtime they earned.
The city routinely conducts audits of its overtime spending, which has continued to climb higher for the past 5 years. The city spent $54.2 million on overtime in fiscal year 2017, an amount double what the city spent on overtime in 2013.
Last year’s audit showed the police department accounted for the bulk of the increase in overtime spending over the past five fiscal years, ending in June 2017, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported.
The Atlanta Police Department accounted for 43 percent of overtime pay in the fiscal year 2018, despite efforts to reduce spending, according to the latest audit. City auditor Amanda Noble said the increase was likely due to crime initiatives.
Five other city departments – fire, watershed management, public works, corrections, and aviation – accounted for an additional 55 percent of overtime pay.
The police officials say special events drive their overtime costs higher. “The City of Atlanta plays host to many major events every year that require multiple layers of security, sometimes for days at a time,” police spokesman Carlos Campos said in an emailed statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The department’s ability to pay overtime is critical to our ability to ensure public safety coverage for these planned major events – as well as unexpected or impromptu incidents, marches, and demonstrations.”
Overtime tied to special events was only the case in January 2018. At the time, Atlanta hosted its annual New Year’s Eve Peach Drop celebration, the College Football Championship game between Georgia and Alabama at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was inaugurated.
Auditors found that between fiscal years 2015 and 2017, the increase in Atlanta’s overtime spending outpaced six of its peer cities — Houston, Dallas, Philadelphia, Miami, Phoenix, and Washington D.C. — over the three-year period. Atlanta spent 8 percent of its personnel budget on overtime in fiscal year 2017, compared to an average of 4.8 percent among the seven cities.
“The city consistently under-budgeted and overspent compared to the peer cities,” auditors wrote. “Atlanta does not use historical spending to estimate future overtime relying instead on position vacancies to cover costs.”
Auditors also did not find a correlation between vacancies and overtime except in the fire department, which saw a 23 percent increase in overtime pay as a result of vacancies. Campos said the police department has 350 officer vacancies and has used overtime to ensure there are no gaps in public safety resulting from the vacancies.
The police department’s overtime costs were raised by “generous overtime rates” compared to those outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act, auditors wrote. They found Atlanta pays its officers overtime after they’ve worked 160 hours in a 28-day work period as opposed to the FLSA’s 171-hour threshold.
Additionally, more than 60 percent of Atlanta police sergeants were paid overtime earnings that exceeded 15 percent of their annual base salaries. That violates a city ordinance passed in 2015 which limited overtime to no more than that amount.
“After the limit was put in place no one was monitoring it,” Noble said. “So, a lot of sergeants were making over the cap.”
Since discovering their excessive overtime spending, Atlanta police have instituted policies resulting in a 60 percent reduction of overtime pay for the department.
“We clearly understand that overtime payouts should not be viewed as a blank check written to officers,” Campos said. “We have a responsibility to ensure any overtime money is spent wisely and effectively.”
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