PATERSON, NJ - No city department collected more overtime than the $357,000 paid to police officers during last summer's flood disaster. That represented more than 47 percent of the total payments. In fact, the three highest checks went to police officers as did seven of the top 10 payments.
But the City Council spent less than an hour questioning Police Chief James Wittig during its overtime hearing Friday night. By requesting more documentation from Wittig on the department's top OT earners, the council did leave the door open for a deeper probe later on.
The other main witness during Friday's hearing was Health and Human Services Director Donna Nelson-Ivy. The only official among those originally subpoenaed who has not been asked to testify is Mayor Jeffrey Jones.
When asked whether Jones would be called to testify at the next hearing on December 14, Councilman Kenneth Morris replied, "There are people who will pay money for that answer. He may, or he may not.''
So far, the hearings have highlighted the shortcomings of Paterson's lack of procedures for overtime requisitions and lack of policies regarding which employees are entitled to overtime.
After the controversial payments to the mayor and his Cabinet members were exposed, the state directed that the checks be given back.
Neslon-Ivy was among those required to return their checks. She told the city council that she simply was "following the process, following the instructions" when she included herself among those members of her department slated for overtime. She said she was told during Cabinet meetings to document all of her time as well as her staff's during the disaster so the city could be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Nelson-Ivy told the council that employees in her department weren't concerned about the extra pay when called to work during the disaster. "Nobody said, 'We going on overtime?' It wasn't that kind of event,'' she said.
Nelson-Ivy acknowledged that she received overtime during the flooding that hit Paterson in March. She said she had mixed feelings about taking the extra pay because FEMA ended up not declaring a disaster. "I really struggled with that,'' she said. "So if you'd like, I'll pay it back. I'm not trying to to spend the city's money. I'm trying to save the city money.''
During her testimony, Councilman Rigo Rodriguez grilled Nelson-Ivy about the choices of which nurses were called in to work for the disaster. Rodriguez maintained that some health department nurses who received stipends for disaster response work were hardly used during the crisis, while others were assigned many overtime hours. Rodriguez asked who made that decision. Nelson-Ivy said it was her nursing supervisor, based on the nurses' skills and qualifications.
During Wittig's testimony, he said he worked an extra 87 hours over a a two-week period during the floods. But he did not receive any overtime. The department's labor contract only provides overtime for officers up the rank of capatin, he said. Moreover, FEMA does not reimbuse localities for overtime for officers above the rank of lieutenant, he said.
Wittig testified that the city's decision to lay off 125 officers in April forced the department to call more of its higher paid members in on overtime during the disaster because the ranks of the lower-paid officers had been thinned.
Morris said 18 police officers made between $4,000 and $5,000 in overtime during the flood. Three made between $5,000 and $7,000, two between $7,000 and $8,000 and two more than $8,000. Morris' numbers reflected the officers' gross payments, not what they netted on their checks.
Several council members asked Wittig if he thought there were any irregularities or problems in accountability in verifying the officers' hours. Wittig said there weren't.
The chief said the flood presented an unique challenge because part of the police department had to focus on the problems crated by the overflowing Passaic River, while part had to continue maintaining law and order in areas of Paterson unaffected by the floods.
Wittig said that as the flooding grew worse the demands on his department became greater. Officers, he said, were called in from vacation and leave days to work. None of the council members asked the chief whether he considered suspending all vacation and leave time during the emergency.
Council members also stopped short of grilling the chief on the overtime payments made to individual members of his department. For example, Sgt. Kelly Hemmings netted $7,002 in overtime, the highest total in the city. His time sheets say he worked 16 overtime hours the first day and 18 overtime hours per day for six days after that.
That schedule seems in violation of FEMA reimbursement rules, which says the federal goverment would pay up to 24 hours for the first two day, but only 16 hours per day after that.