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Overtime blamed on lack of controls

Expenditures by the Sheriff's Department totaled $48 million in the last fiscal year, a county audit finds.

October 23, 2008|Christian Berthelsen | Berthelsen is a Times staff writer.

Overtime pay in the Orange County Sheriff's Department has skyrocketed in recent years because the department lacks a comprehensive policy or effective controls on the extra pay, according to an audit released Wednesday.

Overtime in the department totaled nearly $48 million in the last fiscal year, more than double its level eight years ago, the report by the county's performance audit director found.

The department spent more on overtime than it had budgeted for the expense in seven of the last eight years.

Though most of the overtime was paid to cover vacant shifts because of staff shortages, particularly in the county jails, the audit also found several practices that were needlessly driving up costs.

Those practices -- which included employees working on days when they had scheduled time off, and working more than the allowable hours of overtime during a pay period -- were particularly common among a small group of employees who were augmenting their base salaries with overtime by at least 50%.

The report recommended several policy changes that could save the county at least $3 million a year, but potentially much more if certain practices were adopted.

A lack of "formal direction" -- including inconsistent approaches to overtime management in different divisions, a lack of accountability and excessive overtime work by some employees -- caused many of the problems, the report found.

Overall, the audit found using overtime to cover vacant shifts was slightly cheaper than hiring additional employees, but recommended that county supervisors and department leaders pursue further policy discussions about whether the savings are worth it, considering the risk created by a fatigued staff.

The audit was requested by county supervisors after a Times report earlier this year that found two-thirds of the department's sworn deputies make more than $100,000 a year, including 27 deputies who collected more than $75,000 in overtime pay and four who earned more than $100,000 on top of their base salaries.

County Board of Supervisors Chairman John Moorlach, who asked the county's performance auditor to conduct the review in response to the report, said the report had found several ways to fix the problem.

"I got the sense that it was just not being monitored or measured properly," Moorlach said Wednesday. "I see here that there's a real opportunity for improvement in how we're measuring and monitoring employees."

In a written response to the audit's findings, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said a lack of qualified candidates and funding shortages made it difficult for the department to fill vacant positions, requiring use of overtime.

Those problems came at a time when the department's responsibilities were expanding, with new jail facilities and a demand for more patrol services from the cities the department serves.

"The department did not intentionally keep a high vacancy rate with the intention of using overtime to generate cost savings," Hutchens wrote.

She added that the department is already making some efforts to reduce overtime, including more aggressive tracking of employees' extra shifts.


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