Overtime still impacting Gwinnett County pensions

During each of his last four years with the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, Ronald Sims added nearly 50 percent to his $60,000 salary in overtime — making $109,000 by working extra hours from 2008 until his 2011 retirement.

And Sims isn’t alone.

Last year, Cpl. George Miller made $32,500 in overtime and Sgt. Paul Corso made $28,000, culminating five-year runs in which each accumulated more than $118,000 in overtime pay on top of their regular salaries.

» See how much the deputies made in OT (pdf)

It’s a level of spending that helped make overtime in the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office a federal issue, when former Commission chairman Charles Bannister filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Butch Conway alleging, in part, that the Sheriff allowed employees to pad their pensions through overtime.

And it’s an issue that will continue costing taxpayers for years, because of overtime’s impact on pension benefits.

With its $71 million budget, the Sheriff’s Office is the second-largest department, trailing only the Gwinnett County Police Department and its $81 million budget. Both departments have roughly 700 employees.

But the Sheriff has spent the most on overtime during the past five years — nearly $9 million, or about $1.7 million a year.

Bannister’s suit alleges that some of that spending was unnecessary.

Filed in U.S. District Court for Northern Georgia last year, Bannister is suing Conway and two deputies, accusing them of improperly arresting him in July 2010 for driving under the influence.

A blood test after Bannister’s arrest showed no alcohol in his system. Bannister alleges in the suit that he was targeted by Conway after repeated clashes with the sheriff over political issues, including the complaint that Conway “encouraged” employees to work large amounts of overtime just before retirement to boost their pensions.

“Conway’s scheme improperly inflated retirement pay to the detriment of Gwinnett County taxpayers,” the lawsuit says, which adds that Conway was “angered and embarrassed” by the allegation.

Bannister was forced to resign from the commission in October 2010 to avoid a perjury charge in an unrelated case.

Conway, now in his fifth term since being elected sheriff in 1996, has admitted that his department erred in arresting Bannister. But the sheriff said in an interview this week that he has never encouraged anyone to work overtime, and has made an effort to reduce it over the past few years.

“You use whoever is willing to work it,” Conway said of overtime. “It’s not something we’re wasting taxpayer dollars on, I can assure you.”

Payroll records obtained by The Atlanta Constitution-Journal show that Conway has indeed reduced overtime spending recently, from $3.2 million in 2008 to a low of $1.3 million in each of the last two years.

But the overtime hasn’t slowed for everyone.

Twenty-nine employees made $10,000 or more in overtime last year. The year before, the number was 24.

And over the past five years, 23 Sheriff’s Office employees have made $50,000 or more — some a lot more — just in overtime pay, according to an analysis of payroll records by the newspaper.

That list includes senior deputy Patrick Whitening, who has brought in $110,000 in overtime since 2008; four other employees who made $90,000 or more in the same time frame; and an additional six who made $70,000 or more.

Miller, who works exclusively inside the jail, said in an interview that overtime is usually offered first-come, first-serve. And he tries to be first in line.

“It’s as you want it; as you can get it,” Miller said. “I have a large family, and it helps me. I’ve worked overtime from the day I signed into this facility. I could either go outside and get a part-time job and earn more money. Or I can work here, where I’m comfortable, where I know what I’m doing.”

Sims, who has been rehired by the Sheriff’s Office as a part-time employee, and Corso declined interview requests through a spokeswoman.

Commissioners eliminated overtime from pension calculations starting at mid-year in 2009, but overtime worked before then can boost pension payments in the county’s complex formula.

For example, Sims made $30,733 in overtime in 2008, which was the last full year that overtime figured into the county’s traditional pension system.

Each pension calculation under the county’s defined benefit plan is unique to the individual, because they take into account a percentage of the employees’ highest 60 consecutive months of earnings, then multiplies that by the number of years of full-time employment.

But that amount of overtime — if maintained over the entire five years of pension calculation for an employee with 24 years of service — would mean an additional $16,500 a year.

Conway says much of the overtime is unavoidable because of his office’s constitutionally-mandated duties, such as staffing the jail and courtrooms, security screenings at the government center, serving arrest warrants, managing the Sex Offender Registry, and inmate transportation, to name a few.

“From a management perspective, some functions of the department may be able to operate for a period of time with a short staff scenario, but many others do not have that option,” says a March 25 report on departmental overtime.

Shannon Volkodav, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office, said overtime is voluntary and must be approved by a watch commander. Once that happens, she said, “a supervisor usually puts out a call over the radio” asking for help.

There is little in the way of written overtime policy at the Sheriff’s Office, except that employees can not work more than 75 hours during a one-week period. That includes regular duty hours, overtime, and outside employment. There is also a restriction that employees can’t work more than 17 hours without taking six hours off.

Bannister’s attorney, David Walbert, said his client clashed with Conway over budget and other issues, including Bannister’s opposition to switching a lucrative probation services contract with Gwinnett County to a company partially owned by former commission chairman Wayne Mason’s family.

The Bannister lawsuit should be ready for trial later this year, Walbert said, adding that it’s impossible to “parse out” how much the overtime issue contributed to his client’s rivalry with Conway.

“There was always budget stress,” Walbert said. “They were fattening up budgets and jacking up pension benefits under Georgia law.”

Conway said there is “absolutely no truth” to Bannister’s accusation that the Sheriff’s Office allowed excessive overtime. The sheriff said he has asked that slots at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville be filled with part-time positions “for several years” to reduce overtime spending.

“This was just accomplished recently,” Conway said.

But the overtime worked prior to August 2009 will continue to have impact for years to come.

While all new Gwinnett County employees hired after 2006 were placed into a 401K-style plan, which is considered cheaper and less risky for the government, older employees nearing retirement are more likely to be in the county’s traditional plan — which bases pension payments on the highest earnings in 60 consecutive months during the past 10 years.

Miller said the overtime is necessary. When people call in sick or are out for training, the department can’t leave those positions unfilled, particularly at the jail.

“They need a body to take a position that is unoccupied at that time, for the security and safety of our personnel,” Miller said.

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