OT issue causes riff, dispatch disputes pay

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 22, 2004

After nearly a decade with the Ironton Police Department, Sgt. Joe Ross understands how city finances work - especially at the end of the year.

But all the experience in the world does not mean he likes working overtime without getting paid for it. And it certainly does not make explaining a tight Christmas to his 9-year-old daughter any easier.

"Me and my wife have been married for 15 years," said the officer who has seen the department shrink from 20 officers to only 13 in less than a decade. "This is probably the worst Christmas we have ever had."

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Since Oct. 27, many of the Ironton Police Department officers have been forced to work overtime. So far, they have yet to see a single cent.

As of the Dec. 7 pay period, the officers were owed $6,887. The dispatchers are owed $1,509 as of the same date.

Now the overtime crunch has left the city without full-time police dispatching and prompted the president of the local union that represents the dispatchers, Joe Johnson, to resign.

City leaders have maintained that the employees will all get paid but the as-yet unfulfilled promise does not change the fact that the city is violating the federal Fair Labor Standards Act in addition to the local union contract.

"I have never heard of such a thing. I have never heard of people being asked to work for free," said John Looman, operations coordinator for the Fraternal Order of Police Ohio Labor Council.

"I don't know what the dispute is but under no circumstances is anyone allowed to be worked for free."

The union can either file a grievance or file a complaint with the Department of Labor's Wage and Hours Division, Looman said.

Overtime has been caused by officers covering for sick days, vacation days, comp time, the presidential visit, injury leave, floods and more. The department ran overbudget earlier this year. City council warned the administration that the issue had to be corrected. The city allocated $53,000 in the 2004 budget but have had to revise it several times, with another change pending.

One frustrating factor for the officers has been that they have never received official notice that they would not be paid or even when they would. For Ross, he will have worked 30 days without a day off by the end of the year but

does not know if he will have the money to show for it.

"It has caused everyone down here problems," Sgt. Ross said. "This is something we rely on each year to provide Christmas for our families. We already worked the overtime before it was decided that we would not get paid."

The issue has created lots of fingerpointing. City council members maintain that the police chief and mayor have not done enough to stem the money drain. The mayor and chief have argued that the department has been cut to the bone and cannot maintain services without the overtime given its current manpower.

Councilman Jesse Roberts emphasized that the administration is violating the city charter by spending money that has not been allocated.

"The administration should have made sure the money was in place before they spent it," said Roberts. "It was never our intention not to pay them. They will be paid. The problem is that administration should have stopped the spending and they have not."

Fellow finance committeeman Brent Pyles echoed the disappointment that the issue was not addressed earlier this year.

"I agree that you cannot budget crime," Pyles said. "But our scheduling and the way we do things are improvements we can make."

Acknowledging that the overtime will never be eliminated, Mayor Elam and Chief Bill Garland contend that all the problems come back to inadequate staffing to maintain police protection for the city.

"This has been a challenge throughout the city for a number of years," Elam said. "We are taking steps to reduce overtime in the police department, as well as other departments."

The chief and mayor have been looking at the budget as well as looking at ways to adjust the scheduling to provide adequate coverage. Still, Elam said the best way to fix the problem will be to hire one to two additional officers.

"I have been told that I have to work with what I have," Garland said. "Now, they are concerned with too much overtime."

In the meantime, the officers remain caught in the middle.

Council will consider the final 2004 budget Thursday. It includes funding for most, but maybe not all, of the overtime. If adopted, a special payroll could be set up for next week. Since it was unfavorably recommended by the finance committee, there is no guarantee that the current proposal will pass.

In the meantime, Ross and his fellow officers continue to wait and juggle to make ends meet. As Det. Jim Carey said: "We would just like to know when, or if, we are going to get paid."

In the most recent development, the city has been left without a dispatcher for a portion of today since no overtime hours will be allowed.

It was at first agreed Tuesday that the county's 911 would handle the calls for the city but that fell apart.

The Lawrence County Commission called a special meeting this morning to discuss the request from the city to have the county's 911 dispatchers handle city police calls. But Commissioner George Patterson said the meeting did not take place after an

AFSCME union representative handed the commissioners a letter stating opposition to the plan.

"They've got to have an agreement," Patterson said. "If the mayor would sign it and council would sign it and the union, then the commissioners would sign it. But they are (911)

not set up to do it."

Garland cannot handle the dispatching himself because the union can file a grievance and have done so in the past.

The chief said that anyone who needs emergency assistance should call 911 and the agency will be obligated to at least forward the call.

For AFSCME President Joe Johnson, the frustration that everyone cannot work together reached a boiling point. He resigned as president this morning.

"I am fed up with it. I really am," he said. "I am done."