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The Rising Price of Protection

By Elizabeth Schneider

Feb. 5 -- The City of Santa Monica paid more than $6 million in overtime to its 292 police officers and firefighters in 2001, raising the annual salary of nearly half of them to more than $100,000, with one officer topping $200,000, according to a investigation by The Lookout.

Thanks to overtime, Sgt. James F. Hirt, who has since retired, brought home $214,415 in 2001, making him the highest paid City employee. That was $36,287 more than City Manager Susan McCarthy, the highest paid City official. In fact, Hirt earned $39,415 more than Gov. Gray Davis' $175,000.

Salaries for Santa Monica's public safety personnel continue to rise despite cost-cutting and accounting measures implemented by the City after a 1996 analysis published by The Outlook found that the City's police force was likely one of the highest paid in the nation.

In 1995, 23 officers, or 12 percent of the force, made more than $100,000. (The Outlook did not analyze firefighter salaries.) Since then, cities across the state, if not the nation, have followed Santa Monica's lead, with firefighters and police officers routinely ranking among the highest paid municipal employees.

But few, if any, have managed to keep up with Santa Monica's high overtime pay, which often amounts to a second salary.

Of Santa Monica's 191 sworn police officers, 62 made more than $100,000 in base salary and overtime in calendar year 2001, according to the most recent figures compiled by the City and gathered by The Lookout under the Freedom of Information Act.

Eighteen officers made more than $125,000, six exceeded $150,000 and Hirt topped the $200,000 mark thanks to $121,795 in overtime.

Salaries for the City's firefighters were even higher. Seventy-eight of Santa Monica's 101 firefighters made more than $100,000 in base salary and overtime in 2001, with 26 exceeding $125,000 and six making more than $150,000.

Including overtime, 17 firefighters made more than Chief Ettore Bernardinelli, whose salary was $132,984, and seven police officers made more than the $141,312 paid to Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr.

Despite a growing budget shortfall, most City officials have yet to express concern about the steady rise in overtime pay, which in recent years has been a standard practice for both the police and fire departments. In fact, most top City officials see no problem with paying high public safety wages. They believe they get the best when they pay the most.

"We want the most professional police force and in order to reach that goal we need to pay the money," said Mayor Richard Bloom. "I don't believe, and I don't think staff believes, that we are paying the police force and fire fighters too much.

"On the contrary, most people who have expressed opinions to me about our public safety department have something positive to say," Bloom said. "And that says a lot."

Councilman Herb Katz agrees, saying he was not surprised at the number of officers and firefighters making more than $100,000. "It's well earned," Katz said. Both firefighters and police officers, he added, "risk their lives every single day."

While the City Council is responsible for setting the police department's budget, "how it is used is up to the Chief [of police] and the City Manager," Katz said.

The annual budgets set for both the police and fire departments, City Manager McCarthy said, are "based in part by actual expenditures. We expect both departments to live within their budgets, and in general that's the case."

But, McCarthy added, "there are peaks in overtime in a typical year" dictated by community concerns and special public safety needs. These included the City Council-approved "traffic initiative" budgeted in the 2000-01 fiscal year, as well increased police presence in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the East Coast.

"It's important to understand the various levels of control" over budgets, McCarthy said. "Each department head is responsible for managing the budget they have been provided with. But there is room for some "considerable flexibility," she added.

While most top officials see no need to tamper with the two departments' budgets, some are questioning the City's practices. Councilman Bob Holbrook expressed concern that some public safety employees may be exhausted from their work schedule.

"I'm worried that employees are getting burnt out by working too many hours," Holbrook said.

However, council members are barred from speaking with the chief of police directly concerning policy or staffing issues, Holbrook said. Those types of questions "have to be asked through the City Manager."

Former council member Tony Vazquez calls the police departments' presence in certain areas of town "overkill."

"Santa Monica by no means has a high crime rate," said Vazquez, who questioned high police salaries in The Outlook series seven years ago. "Crime has actually gone down over time."

"It's ironic," Vazquez points out, that while the City is tightening its belt, no one has put a cap on police salaries. "I'm worried about the city's commitment to the schools," said Vazquez, who is married to School Board President Maria Leon-Vazquez. "Our teachers' salaries don't come close to that of the police."

Police Chief Butts strongly defends the $3.6 million spent by his department in overtime for 2001. The department, Butts said, was operating with 12 vacancies.

There are no problems with recruitment, Butts said. It is the department's "high standards that are difficult to meet.

"We have tough hire and retention standards," said Butts, who has headed the department since 1992. "We have no problem filling the academy. We probably take five or six (trainees) out of 100."

Much of the overtime spent by the department is used to pay for services approved by the City Council, Butts said. For example, in the 2001-02 fiscal year, $800,000 budgeted for overtime was used to pay for the City sponsored traffic initiative, Butts said.

In addition, the nature of police work in Santa Monica -- which has a bedroom population of about 84,000 -- is seasonal, Butts said. Extra officers are needed during the summer months to keep up with the influx of tourists, while fewer are needed during the winter months when the visitor population dwindles.

"Overtime affords us flexibility," said Butts, who added that this practice also keeps layoffs to a minimum. "It will always be cheaper to pay increments of half-hour (overtime rates) as opposed to permanent, full time positions with benefits."

Human Resources Director Karen Bancroft, who is charged with negotiating employee contracts, agrees. "It's cheaper to staff at time-and-a-half," Bancroft said.

The seasons also affect overtime pay at the fire department, said Chief Bernardinelli.

But in this case, it's the firefighters taking the summer vacation, not the visiting tourists. A reason for the inflated overtime during the summer months, explains Bernardinelli, could be that firefighters generally tend to take their vacation then.

During the summer, Bernardinelli said, "there is a higher demand to fill overtime positions," he said.

More importantly, a firefighter doesn't work a normal 9 to 5 shift. Typically a workday runs from 8 a.m. until midnight one day, then midnight to 8 a.m. the following day, Bernardinelli said. The employee then has the rest of the day off.

But Bernardinelli acknowledged that because there is no limit to the number of hours a firefighter can work in a row, some can end up working for a full week, with two 24-hour days paid in overtime.

In addition, the department's "constant staffing" policy requires four people per engine, five per ladder engine and two per ambulance plus a platoon commander, bringing the total number of people required to be at a station at any given time to 30.

This common fire department policy, Bernardinelli said, "drives most of our overtime."

"Constant staffing is a positive thing and it has proven to be beneficial ever since we introduced the paramedic program in the 1970's," he said

The high overtime wages for Santa Monica's police officers and firefighters are not only affecting the City's bottom line. They have boosted the public safety budget for nearby cities.

In order to keep pace with the high Santa Monica salaries, other municipalities have increased their safety personnel wages in order to recruit and retain staff, said City officials in Culver City and Beverly Hills.

None of the cities surveyed by The Lookout had as many officers topping the $100,000 mark as Santa Monica -- which saw the number jump from 23 of the 194 officers in 1996 to 62 of the 191 officers in 2001.

But neighboring cities that had only one officer making more than $100,000 in 1996 had as many as a dozen in 2001. In Beverly Hills, for example, 12 of the 136 officers topped the $100,000 in 2001, up from one of the 132 officers in 1996. In Culver City, 9 of the 127 officers made more than $100,000, compared to one of the 118 officers five years earlier.

"Don't be surprised if the numbers are so high because we are trying to keep up with you," said Beverly Hills City Manager Mark Scott.

This is the first in a series of investigative articles concerning the rising cost of public safety that will run this month.
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