PATERSON, NJ – Under pressure from a lawsuit, the City Council on Tuesday approved payment on $269,000 worth of overtime for Paterson police officers, some of which was for work performed as long as three months ago.
The city council in March had stopped approving police overtime on the grounds that the department had not provided enough documentation to substantiate the work. Council members also were upset that police officers had refused to participate in their inquiry into last year’s controversial flood overtime.
In response to the freeze, the city police unions had filed a federal lawsuit over the unpaid overtime.
Last week, the judge in that case had recommended that the council pay the overtime, said Alex Cruz, president of Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local #1. "This is money the officers had coming to them for working the homicides and all these aggravated assaults we've been having,'' Cruz said. "We have an obligation to protect the city, but the city also has an obligation to pay these officers for the work they have done.''
The union also had prevailed in a separate lawsuit that maintained the officer's law enforcement status precluded council members from asking them certain questions about their jobs.
On Monday, eight months after they were originally were subpoenaed, several police officers testified in the city council’s flood overtime inquiry. But as a result of the union’s victory in its lawsuit, the officers only answered questions about the overtime process, said City Council Finance Chairman Kenneth Morris. The officers would not answer questions about their own overtime hours or what duties they performed while accumulating the overtime, Morris said.
City records show that one officer was paid for 18 hours of overtime for six straight days during last year's flooding.
For too long, Morris said, the police officers have been allowed to submit overtime without sufficient justification. “We cannot continue to operate this way,’’ said Morris. “It’s one of the things that lead to the 29 percent tax increase the previous year.’’
Councilman William McKoy, chairman of the public safety committee, said the council faced “a peculiar dilemma” on the police overtime. “There is a shield around the department,’’ McKoy said.
Under the police department’s process for filing overtime, supervisors fill out the OT requisitions rather than the officers who performed the work, McKoy said. “That’s a fundamental flaw in the process’’ because the individuals who supposed performed the work cannot be held accountable for verifying it, he said.
Moreover, McKoy said, the recent court ruling protected the department from any outside review of its overtime practices. The department’s own Internal Affairs division seemed to be the only entity allowed to probe the details of the officers’ overtime, McKoy said. “You have the department reviewing itself,’’ McKoy said.
But Cruz said in an interview that officers' overtime gets plenty of scrutiny before the forms are submitted to the police director for approval. "There's a lot of checks and balances,'' Cruz said. "If they don't think there's enough, that's up to the chief and the director to determine. It's not up to the PBA.''
Cruz said he was disappointed that the city council had chosen to hold back overtime just for police officers and not for any other city employees.
City finance officials said the checks for the $269,000 in overtime approved on Tuesday would be issued this week. Those payments put the department close to $200,000 over its budget line item for overtime, officials said. But the police department remains within its overall budget for 2012, officials said.
In an effort to monitor police overtime more closely, Morris on Tuesday night said the council ought to adopt an ordinance to create “red flags” when certain spending thresholds are surpassed. Morris suggested the council require the police director to appear before the city council once the police department uses up 80 percent of its overtime budget. Morris also proposed that the police department not be allowed to exceed its overtime budget by more than 20 percent.
At Morris’ request, City Corporation Counsel Paul Forsman said he would research city laws and prepare a proposed ordinance restricting police overtime spending.
Despite the harsh criticism of the police overtime spending, the city council voted 9-0 to allow the payment of the $269,000.
“We have to be diplomatic about the way this thing goes,’’ said Councilman Rigo Rodriguez, saying he did not want rank-and-file officers to be deprived of money they had earned.
Several council members also made it clear that the union’s pending lawsuit influenced their decision.