Editorial: Leaky overtime needed earlier plugging

May. 01, 2013 @ 10:16 PM

The overtime expenses for the City of Durham’s Water Management Department weren’t a slow trickle in 2011-12.

They were more like a gusher.

In a report to the City Council, The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg wrote on Wednesday, auditors indicated that four maintenance supervisors drew a combined $116,777 in overtime pay. That basically boosted their pay for the year by nearly half.

The problem isn’t so much the expense, however, as it is the lack of proper documentation of the need for it.

We absolutely understand that some overtime may be necessary to deal with emergencies or even to manage duties that must be spread around due to staff vacancies. However, given that these are taxpayers’ dollars in particularly tight times, it is critical that department leaders make sure to put down in writing exactly what those emergencies are and what tasks are being shared.

The report shows no evidence of fraud. However, Audit Services Director Germaine Brewington and her staff didn’t get a full sense of why the extra work was necessary.

“Management assumed that overtime was necessary given the job responsibilities,” the auditors said in their report. “However, they did not question the amount of overtime claimed, nor did they question whether the overtime was necessary to carry out the work.”

Don Greeley, the city’s Water Management Director, insisted that the audit’s already prompting procedural changes. For example, prior approval is now required before employees can incur overtime and better reporting is expected.

“With several of the people, we knew the overtime was getting high, and we want to be able to manage those dollars down,” he said. “If you look at the numbers, it’s putting a lot of wear and tear on our employees, and we certainly don’t want to run them into the ground. So we’re looking to improve our management of overtime.”

One explanation he offered for rising overtime costs: The ongoing effort to replace water meters with models that can be read by radio. Crews had to perform extra service adjustments because new meters didn’t always fit in old spaces.

We’re glad to hear that steps are being taken to wrangle those overtime dollars back into line, but we’re troubled that it took an audit to call attention to such a glaring problem.

So, it seems, is City Manager Tom Bonfield.

“That level of overtime requires a management intervention long before it’s discovered as the result of an audit,” he said. “Whether it’s perceived as legitimate or not, it’s still something that raises a lot of eyebrows and, in many cases, unnecessary suspicions.”