The first in a Three-Part Series

PATERSON, NJ – While struggling with an ongoing fiscal crisis, Paterson city government spent more than $6.86 million on overtime during 2012, an increase of 18.3 percent compared to the previous year and 61.5 percent more than what was paid out in 2010.

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The police department accounted for the largest chunk of that overtime, or slightly more than $2.83 million, according to documents provided to PatersonPress.com under an Open Public Records Act request. The fire department had the next highest total with about $1.92 million, followed by the public works department with about $1.65 million.

The city’s total overtime spending in 2010 had been $4,244,365 and in 2011 it was $5,802,601, the records show.

“It’s a sign that no one is minding the store,’’ said Councilman William McKoy when asked about the overtime numbers. “There should be a Cabinet-level discussion every month with an analysis of the overtime and strategies for bringing it under control. That hasn’t happened.’’

“Someone is dropping the ball somewhere,’’ said Councilman Kenneth Morris. “These numbers say to me that the administration has taken no steps to control overtime spending.’’

Mayor Jeffery Jones dismissed the council members’ criticism as political potshots. He attributed much of the overtime to the demands of protecting the public against fires and crime. “Something happens and they either go out and respond, or they don’t,’’ Jones said. “We’re not going to sacrifice human lives. That’s something we just can’t do.’’

Jones asserted that none of the overtime was “reckless or wasteful.’’ Moreover, he said his top administrators already have been conducting the kind of overtime review meetings called for by McKoy. “We examine and explore our spending ritually,’’ said the mayor. “It’s an everyday occurrence.’’

Jones said the state has been closely monitoring Paterson’s spending during the past year and has not highlighted any problems with the overtime.

The police and fire departments accounted for much of the overtime increase.  The police department’s overtime payments rose by more than $600,000, while the fire department’s tab increased by more than $460,000, city documents show.

“The driving force behind the overtime in both the fire and police department is a lack of manpower,’’ said Glenn Brown, director of the two departments. “We’re talking about a severe lack of personnel.’’

Brown predicted that the fire department’s overtime spending would drop significantly in 2013 because the city was able to hire more than 30 firefighters last fall to fill vacancies. In order to meet on-duty staffing requirements, the fire department routinely assigned firefighters overtime to cover the gaps last year, officials said.

The police department, meanwhile, is supposed to have between 375 and 395 officers, Brown said. But at present, there are approximately 360, he added. That results in overtime to cover crime hotspots and to deploy routine patrols, he said.

 The city laid off 125 police officers in 2011, and then rehired 37 of them at the end of June 2012. But Brown said the rehirings had little impact because 17 officers retired in July and others put in for their pensions after that.

Since last October, Paterson has had a request pending with the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) seeking approval to rehire another 21 officers. Part of the delay has stemmed from the DCA’s request for information about the police department’s staffing. (Under an agreement providing Paterson with state Transition Aid, all city hiring decisions must get the approval from the state.)

“The City provided a table of organization a few months ago, however, it did not provide all the information the Division (of Local Government Services) was looking for,’’ said state spokeswoman Tammori Petty when asked about the request for extra police. “Therefore, the Division requested a revised version with the additional information a few weeks ago. The Division has been in communication with the City to ensure the appropriate information is included so that the Division can conduct an expeditious review upon receipt of the information.”

City Council members have attempted to take a hard line on police overtime spending, refusing to approve the department’s payments for several months early last year on the grounds that they have not received sufficient substantiation of the extra hours.

But the Policemen’s Benevolent Association filed a lawsuit and successfully forced the council to sign off on the payments on the grounds that the city was violating the officers’ union contract by withholding the overtime. That case is still pending in federal court with the union seeking punitive damages against the council. In fact, the council has hired an auditor for $85,000 as part of the litigation.

Several council members have expressed frustrations because Attorney General guidelines on law enforcement have limited their fiscal oversight of the police department.

“It’s like they’re almost immune to scrutiny at the local level,’’ Councilman Kenneth McDaniel said of the police department’s spending. “There’s no incentive in upper management in the police department to decrease the overtime.’’

The council has demanded documentation of the police overtime payments, but council members say they have not been given that information.  The police department has taken the position that much of that information is confidential and the courts have backed that position, according to council members.

“We might find that every single penny is justified,’’ McDaniel said. “But right now we don’t know that because we don’t have the information.’’

The increase in overtime spending comes as the city grapples with an $8.5 million structural budget deficit. Even if that gap gets resolved, city property owners will still face a tax increase of more than three percent. Over the previous two years, property owners already have endured a cumulative increase of more than 30 percent.

“We can’t afford it,’’ said Councilman Rigo Rodriguez when asked about the overtime payments. “This is another piece of the puzzle that really bothers me.’’

Councilman Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman said he couldn’t evaluate the overtime spending without knowing the details of why employees worked the extra hours. “Sometimes it’s necessary,’’ Akhtaruzzaman said. “You have to see the circumstances.’’

Councilman Andre Sayegh said the fire department’s overtime bills have been lower since the extra firefighters were hired last fall. Sayegh said that if the overtime stems from staffing shortages the city should look into hiring grant writers who could help generate additional funding to hire more employees.

Part 2 Tomorrow: Find out which city employee more than doubled his six-figure salary with $112,051 worth of overtime.