City needs overtime-pay control with teeth 

It happens every year without fail. At some point during San Francisco’s annual budget tug-of-war, it suddenly becomes evident that most of The City’s larger municipal departments are spending wildly more than their approved overtime allocations.

This routinely triggers a round of outraged bellows from the Board of Supervisors, along with threats to do something about this abuse once and for all. Then the issue drops off the radar and the supervisors move on to their next confrontation.

The San Francisco Examiner is pleased to see our board finally taking departmental overtime drain more seriously. Supervisor David Campos has introduced legislation co-sponsored by Supervisor Mark Farrell that would require departments to obtain Board of Supervisors approval if they want to exceed their overtime spending budgets.

“We’re talking about big dollars,” Farrell said, which is certainly correct. City departments are on track to exceed this fiscal year’s budgeted overtime by more than $40 million — up from $103 million from last year to a grand total of $141.6 million. The record high for municipal overtime costs was $167.7 million in fiscal year 2007-08, but it managed to stay on a downward trend until now.

City departments told Mayor Ed Lee they would spend $94 million for overtime in the 2011-12 fiscal year starting July 1. But based on past experience, those just seem like fantasy numbers. Department chiefs can always fall back on standard alibis for public service overtime — ongoing hiring freezes, mandated service levels and cost-savings from not adding new-worker benefits.

Mayor Lee had to close a $300 million deficit for next fiscal year’s budget. San Francisco, like most American cities, can expect to be up against nonstop major deficits for years to come. Now of all times is when City Hall really must take decisive action to plug the most wasteful leaks in our budget.

To be clear, the department heads don’t just march into a supervisors meeting and ask for another few million to pay their unbudgeted overtime. They simply transfer savings from unspent salaries and benefits to cover excess overtime.

This tactic doesn’t require board permission and doesn’t specifically raise budget totals. However, it does create a significant problem — especially at times like these when the general fund is under so many pressures.

“The Board of Supervisors ought to have full oversight of how the public’s money is being spent,” said Supervisor Campos. “If a city department can pay overtime with money that was budgeted for something they no longer need, then the budget approved at the board wasn’t really accurate. How do we know if the departments are asking for bigger allocations than they really need, if they don’t submit honest budgets?”

The Campos-Farrell legislation would simply require department heads to come in and convincingly explain to the supervisors why they should be allowed to go over budget on their overtime spending. This is a totally reasonable expectation and long overdue. The board should pass it without delay.

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