PATERSON, NJ – Asserting that Patersonians have lost confidence in municipal government, City Council members on Monday promised a “rigorous investigation” of the overtime paid for flood relief efforts, including the $50,000 improperly issued to the mayor and his Cabinet.
Declaring that some of the overtime seemed suspicious and the hours excessive, officials for the first time said they would examine whether any city employees committed any wrongdoing by getting extra pay they didn’t deserve.
“There are just so many hours in a day,’’’ said Councilman Kenneth Morris.
“We’ve got to find out where these extra hours are coming from,’’ said Council President Anthony Davis.
In addition to conducting their own investigation under a municipal law that gives them subpoena powers, the city council members said they would hire an outside firm to perform an audit of all compensation paid to Paterson workers. They also said they plan to set new limits on the amount of overtime that could be paid to different departments.
Several council members were particularly critical of the fact that higher ranking police officers were among those who collected large amounts of overtime. They said taxpayers would have been better served if the department has assigned rank-and-file officers to the flood duty.
Morris said the investigation would examine the way overtime was assigned, calculated, verified and approved. “Clearly, there are some serious flaws in our internal controls,’’ Morris said.
Morris said the city, which is facing a $47 million deficit this year, cannot afford excessive or improper overtime payments.
Mayor Jeffery Jones said his administration has retained a firm that has started work on an internal audit of the city's overtime payments.
"The Administration has begun a thorough internal review which will analyze all protocols, internal controls and fiscal procedures to identify systematic deficiencies,'' said a press release issued Monday evening by Jones' chief of staff, Charles Pettiford.
The internal audit is being done pro bono, or for free, by Marge Cherone, a certified public accountant and the well-respected former Finance Director for the City of Paterson. "Once the audit has been completed, we will make recommendations for corrective actions ensuring our procedures are cohesive during day to day operations and in incidents when the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is activated,'' the press release said.
When asked about the city council's investigation, Jones said, "It's the city council. They're going to do what they think they need to do.''
Overall, Paterson issued $756,000 worth of overtime checks to 609 employees for the flood relief efforts, according to city records. That’s the net amount they received after taxes and other deductions. The gross amount was more than $1 million.
Jones grossed $9,122 in overtime, which was reduced to $6,144 after taxes and other deductions.
The state has said the mayor and his managers should not have gotten the checks and said they had to give the money back.
As of last week, Morris said, not all of the overtime payments erroneously made to top-ranking city officials had been returned. Morris said he was giving those officials until the end of business on Monday to return the money. Otherwise, Morris said, he would seek to impose interest on the belated payments and attempt to have their city paychecks garnished.
In his press release, Pettifors said all city directors have returned their Hurricane Irene-related payments.
“We the people of Paterson may be simple people, yet we know when something is wrong,’’ said Felix Pagan. “He (Jones) should know better.’’
Pagan criticized Jones for saying that he was surprised to receive the check, saying the mayor seemed “to not know, or not want to know, what’s going on.’’
In addition to Davis and Morris, three other council members attended the press conference, Julio Tavarez, Andre Sayegh and Benjie Wimberly.
“We need a thorough review to restore people’s confidence,’’ said Wimberly, Jones’ closest ally on the council. “There were just too many flaws.’’
Wimberly said the overtime mess may have bigger ramifications for Paterson. The situation has prompted the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs to examine Paterson’s 2011 payroll, including overtime and expensive reimbursements, at the same time that the same state agency is deciding whether to approve the city’s request for $47 million in aid to balance the budget.
“We could put the city in a bad situation,’’ Wimberly said.
Sayegh said Patersonians believe the city is being run like a “gravy train.’’ “The purpose of this investigation is to finds out if there’s a gravy train and derail it,’’ Sayegh said.
Tavarez said he’s heard talk of overtime abuse. “You can’t work overtime and your regular job at the same time,’’ Tavarez said.
The city council’s first step will be adopting a resolution on Tuesday night to create “a committee of the whole,’’ an investigative panel of all nine council members who have authorize to subpoena documents and question witnesses. Among the officials the council eventually would call in for questioning are Jones, Police Chief James Wittig, his deputy chiefs, Personnel Director Betty Taylor, and Glenn Brown, who serves as the city’s police, fire and emergency management director.
It was Brown’s office that Jones has said set in motion the improper overtime checks for the mayor and his managers. Brown has not returned phone messages about the situation.