A new Suffolk County audit has found that Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services officials used “questionable management practices,” failing to ensure dispatchers worked 248 days a year as required and allowing “unneeded” and “exorbitant” overtime, including one worker who made $405,488 in OT over five years.
The review found that a “vast majority” of dispatchers, between 2012 and 2014, did not work the full number of contracted days they were paid for, costing the county 484 work days or $114,277. Those lost days also increased payroll costs by $301,868 for replacements. In addition, the audit also disclosed that dispatchers were often used to do lower-paying clerical duties, costing an additional $432,636.
The audit also uncovered that overtime in the department’s communication division “significantly increased” under the current supervisor even though staffing levels remained largely the same. The comptroller found average monthly overtime costs for each dispatcher rose 142 percent from $732 to $1,774 per month while the supervisor’s average OT increased 338 percent from $1,250 to $5,474 a month.
Of the $5.7 million in FRES overtime from 2010 and 2014, $4.8 million, or 85 percent, came from dispatchers, even though the county budgeted $2.6 million for FRES overtime.
Joseph Williams, FRES commissioner, defended the overtime spending as driven by public safety, saying the agency increased minimum dispatching staffing in 2012 because call volume doubled to 360,351 calls in the past decade. He also said he was forced to use overtime because the civil service title for dispatcher expired in 2014 and a new hiring list was not put in place for seven months.
“To invoke the notion that overtime is driven by public safety does not give anyone a blank check,” said Comptroller John Kennedy in an interview. ”You still have the obligation to manage effectively.” He said the audit was a follow-up to an earlier review and it found most problems remained unfixed. “There was a total breakdown of basic government function of effectively using staff,” Kennedy said.
Williams conceded that all 248 work days “were not always scheduled” properly, but said that time was for training and would not have provided extra economies. He said a new written policy fixed the problem. He also said the department offset added overtime costs with reimbursements from state and federal storm aid totaling $677,619 and by not filling other positions such as clerk typists.
Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider criticized Kennedy for leaking part of his audit to his hometown paper last winter and using data comparing overtime from a former FRES supervisor from six years ago and not talking to the current one. “He didn’t want to let facts get in the way of his findings,” he said.
The comptroller’s audit also disclosed department officials failed to provide written justification for eight heavy overtime earners to the chief deputy county executive, despite a county standard operating procedure mandating notice for those making more than 50 percent over their normal salary.
Kennedy’s audit also raised concerns about the one employee whose $405,488 overtime earnings dominated the whole department over five years. The dispatcher, Matthew McClure, in 2014 had a base salary of $65,788 but made $104,376 in overtime. In 2014 alone, the worker logged 2,094 hours of overtime, more than the 1,950 normal required work hours in a full year.
“In essence the employee was literally working two full-time jobs,” said Kennedy in the audit. “It is questionable whether an employee is still competent to perform public safety duties under these conditions.”
Williams said all dispatchers have an equal shot at overtime but there is no cap on OT earnings.