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For cities and towns, overtime pay rose nearly 17 percent in 2015

Dennis Palmer digs out his driveway on South

Dennis Palmer digs out his driveway on South St. in Port Jefferson following the snow storm on Thursday, March 5, 2015. Newsday / John Paraskevas Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Overtime pay in Long Island’s towns and cities rose nearly 17 percent in 2015 to more than $39 million after declining the previous two years, a Newsday examination shows.

Officials in several towns and cities blamed the severe 2015 winter for helping push up overtime costs, which rose after dropping 30 percent between 2012 and 2014. Other factors that officials cited for the increase include union-mandated overtime in one town and a law enforcement crackdown in another.

The winter included a blizzard that dumped more than 2 feet of snow on parts of Long Island and the coldest month since records were first kept at Long Island MacArthur Airport in 1984. That led to long hours for workers clearing snow and responding to water-main breaks from frozen pipes, officials said.

Newsday examined payroll spreadsheets provided by towns and cities. Some municipalities categorize overtime differently that other municipalities, and this affects comparisons between towns and cities.

Payrolls increased 3 percent, from $725 million in 2014 to $747 million in 2015, as most of the 13 towns and two cities had little change in the number of employees. The number of employees remains 3 percent below the levels in 2011, when Newsday first began tracking Islandwide municipal-government employment.

In 2014, the town and city workforce increased slightly after years of decline, and in 2015, the number inched up again, from 20,340 to 20,388 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees.

The average annual pay for all full- and part-time town and city workers rose by about $1,000 between 2014 and 2015, to $36,662. There were 1,681 employees on Long Island who made at least $100,000 a year in 2015, up from 1,406 in 2014.

Islandwide, 34 of the 37 municipal employees who had gross pay of more than $200,000 in 2015 were police officers. As in past years, many police officers make more than their town’s supervisors and department heads.

Five of the 13 towns and the two cities have their own police departments. The others rely on county police.

As for the 16.7 percent increase in overtime costs, officials cited the weather but also other factors. Oyster Bay pointed to union-mandated overtime for some sanitation workers, and East Hampton cited a crackdown on rowdiness in Montauk. Islip officials said park rangers worked long hours monitoring Roberto Clemente Park after illegal dumping there.

In Huntington, where overtime rose from 4.1 percent of payroll in 2014 to 7.06 percent in 2015, Supervisor Frank Petrone said higher overtime is part of a cost-saving strategy.

“You look at what has to be accomplished, and ask, ‘Do you need a full-time person to get what you need to have done? Do you even need a part-time person?’ ” he asked.

Sometimes, paying overtime to an employee is cheaper than hiring a full-time worker, who may not have a full week of work to do year-round and would receive costly benefits, he said.

Those benefits — health insurance, pension costs, vacation days, sick leave and other expenses incurred after hiring full-timers — added up to nearly 78 percent of the average full-time Huntington employee’s salary in 2015, according to data compiled by the town.

In Hempstead, in contrast to Huntington’s approach, Supervisor Anthony Santino labeled overtime “public enemy No. 1.”

Santino in 2016 is on track to decrease overtime significantly, said town spokesman Michael Deery.

Hempstead in 2015 devoted the smallest proportion of its payroll spending to overtime of all the Island’s towns and cities.

Deery said Santino has expanded and accelerated overtime-fighting efforts begun under his predecessor, Kate Murray, such as having employees cross-trained in multiple tasks, meaning that, for example, some parks employees who are busiest in the summer can help plow snow in the winter.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with one town devoting a much higher or lower percentage of a budget to overtime than another, as long as the towns are conducting detailed analyses of overtime costs and not making decisions on the fly, said Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Albany-based Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative think tank.

“How do you structure your workforce so you’re not wasting your money on overstaffing, but you’re prepared to handle [unexpected expenses] in the most fiscally prudent way?” he asked.

Some of the same employees racking up overtime year after year could raise concerns about adequate staffing levels, Hoefer said. Town officials can’t predict a year in advance when water-main breaks or snowstorms will occur, but they can assume that each year there will be a need to fix and maintain pipes and clear snow, he said.

“You have to be able to predict some of the unpredictable things,” Hoefer said.

Long Beach Police Sgt. Lee Nielsen was paid the most overtime of any town or city employee on Long Island in 2015: $76,145. He also was the highest paid employee Islandwide, making more than $257,000.

The highest compensation for a nonpolice employee was the $248,820 that Hempstead’s former supervisor of building operations, John Gibilaro, was paid. Gibilaro retired as supervisor in February 2015, Deery said. Most of his 2015 compensation was for accrued vacation and sick time and for incentive pay to retire early, as part of a larger program of money-saving buyouts. Gibilaro was rehired in May as a $40-an-hour part-time clerical aide, Deery said.

The highest nonpolice, nonretiree income in 2015 went to Christopher Windle, superintendent of water maintenance in Long Beach, who made $204,002. Windle had the second-highest overtime pay on the island: $72,579.

Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman was the highest paid leader of a city or town, earning more than $178,000. The top-paid town supervisor was Huntington’s Petrone, at $163,713.

Towns were constrained in their 2015 spending by the state’s tax cap, the maximum amount the tax levy could be increased without an override vote by the board.

The 2016 tax cap of 0.73 percent and the 2017 cap of 0.68 percent are by far the smallest since the limit was first imposed in 2012.

With labor costs increasing more than the tax ceiling, towns that don’t pierce the cap will either have to reduce the number of employees, negotiate changes in how much employees contribute to benefit costs or take other steps to keep expenses in check, said Chris Anderson, director of research for the Association of Towns of the State of New York.

“At some point, the numbers . . . have to balance, which means either overriding the tax cap or decreasing employee costs,” he said.

With John Asbury, Valerie Bauman, Denise M. Bonilla, Sophia Chang, Christine Chung, Scott Eidler, Deon J. Hampton, Lisa Irizarry, Carl MacGowan, Deborah S. Morris, Ted Phillips, Jean-Paul Salamanca and Nicholas Spangler.

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