Ventura County's fire and sheriff's departments doled out nearly $21 million in overtime pay during the last fiscal year, with each department showing significant increases over the past five years, a Times analysis has found.
Officials from each department defended the expenditures, arguing it's cheaper to spend money on overtime rather than hire new employees. But some county supervisors and taxpayer advocates say the spending is out of control and needs to be examined for abuses.
"The numbers are just way out of line." Supervisor John Flynn said. "When we have departments that can't keep parks open, there's not enough code enforcement officers, when we can't run animal control the way we should, when we don't have enough people to check the cleanliness of restaurants, then there are too many inequities. My God, think what we could do with [$21 million]."
Flynn and Supervisor Frank Schillo said the increasing overtime expenditures should be a major topic of discussion among board members. Both say they plan to further study the numbers.
Overtime pay for the sheriff's and fire departments actually dipped slightly between 1992 and 1996, following a highly critical audit of the Fire Department's operations.
But overtime in both departments has spiraled upward every year since. The Sheriff's Department posted the biggest spike, with overtime pay jumping 62%, from $7.3 million to $11.7 million, between the 1995-96 fiscal year and 1999-00. The fiscal year runs from June 30 to July 1.
In the last fiscal period, the Fire Department's overtime costs consumed nearly 14%--or $9.2 million--of its $66.3-million budget. By comparison, the Sheriff's Department's overtime accounted for about 9%--or $11.7 million--of its $135.9-million budget.
Sheriff Bob Brooks said he isn't concerned about the hefty overtime bills, saying the extra payouts are the cost of policing a large county. The Sheriff's Department, which includes 750 sworn officers, patrols all unincorporated areas and the cities of Camarillo, Fillmore, Moorpark, Ojai and Thousand Oaks.
"They don't strike me as unusually large," Brooks said of the overtime figures. "I think you'll find it's the same with firefighters and deputies everywhere."
The top base pay for a sheriff's deputy is $54,342. Since January, however, overtime windfalls have allowed 220 sworn personnel to each bring home at least $20,000 in additional pay, with 20 of those grossing over $100,000, according to data from the county auditor's office. The figures cover the period through Nov. 17.
One deputy with a base salary of $47,012 boosted his gross pay by 2 1/2 times, earning $117,781 during this same period. Seven others more than doubled their pay, including a sergeant whose annual paycheck so far has jumped from $61,578 to $123,772.
The gross pay numbers include some cash paid for benefits, such as vacation buyouts, educational incentives and bilingual pay, car allowances and longevity bonuses. But the bulk of the money is for overtime.
Meanwhile, county firefighters took equal advantage of overtime benefits, with the department more than doubling payouts over the past five fiscal years, jumping from $4.9 million to $9.2 million.
The top base pay for a firefighter is $43,728. Since January, 240 firefighters have collected more than $20,000 in overtime pay, with nine firefighters doubling their pay, according to county reports. Of those, 38 have earned more than $100,000 with overtime.
A fire engineer with an annual salary of $44,573 topped the overtime list for his department, earning $107,809 since January, a 142% overall increase. Another fire captain has so far pushed his $58,967 base pay to $130,742.
And 12 fire officials have grossed more than Fire Chief Bob Roper's $114,165 base salary, with one assistant chief landing as the department's top earner at $155,212.
Assistant Fire Chief Darrell Ralston said, "The big spike does seem a little unusual." But he added some of the overtime hours were brought on by employees in the 530-member department assisting in large fire disasters over the past year in surrounding states, including Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, where a record number of fires blazed. That money, he said, is later reimbursed. Those reimbursement figures were not immediately available.
Ralston said individuals carrying the largest overtime payouts are employees who consistently volunteer for it and are willing to take on the extra work.
"There are people that are willing to work five to six extra days a month," Ralston said. "Add that up over a year, and it's about 60 extra work days. But they are the ones that are away from their families too."
In the Sheriff's Department, Brooks said several factors have contributed to spiraling overtime costs, including an agreement to eliminate 100 vacant positions during June's budget negotiations.