- Lance Lambert Staff Writer
The number of local government employees who earned more than $100,000 last year swelled in some cities and townships, with overtime pay allowing police officers and firefighters to compete with chiefs and administrators for the biggest paychecks.
The city of Kettering led the pack with 105 employees bringing in six figures in gross pay in 2015. That was significantly more than the 68 who made $100K in the much larger city of Dayton, and the 69 in Kettering the previous year.
Among 15 area cities, two counties and two townships whose payroll the I-Team acquired using Ohio public records laws and analyzed for this story, there were 406 employees paid more than $100,000 last year.
Greg Lawson, policy director of the conservative Buckeye Institute, said these growing payouts run contrary to claims from local governments that cuts in state assistance payments caused lasting impacts.
“People (were constantly) complaining about Gov. (John) Kasich balancing the state government on the backs of local governments,” he said. “They must be doing OK if they’re having this kind of an increase, so some of those complaints do strike me as crocodile tears.”
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley called the Buckeye Institute’s conclusions “out of touch with reality and out of touch with the good people of Ohio.
“The state has decided to have the largest budget they had in history last year, while cutting local governments and cities,” she said. “You will see local governments have less people on their payroll and less services delivered.”
Whaley and other city leaders said staff reductions due to budget cuts have forced them to work existing employees more hours, boosting individual pay but reducing the city’s overall payroll.
“What you see at most cities is they can’t afford to hire new employees, so they ask the people to work more hours,” she said.
The I-Team assembled an online searchable database of state and area government employees who made more than $50,000 last year. Several local governments could not provide records by press time, and will be added to the database when records are provided.
Of the 19 area governments that provided records this month, nearly 5,000 workers were paid more than $50,000 last year.
The median household income for Montgomery County, by comparison, is $43,281, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Payroll data released by the state of Ohio Friday revealed 2,668 state employees earning at least six-figures, with the highest paid worker making $455,242.
One driver of payroll spikes for Dayton, Kettering and some other governments was a calendar quirk that happens once every 11 years: Their pay schedules had 27 paychecks last year, compared to 26 in 2014 and this year.
But Kettering’s growth in the number of employees making six figures — outpacing all other local governments surveyed — was also fueled largely by exploding growth in firefighter overtime.
“We did have an increase for firefighters in overtime last year,” City Manager Mark Schwieterman said.
He blamed staffing changes made to cope with the Affordable Care Act for driving up overtime.
Schwieterman said the city got rid of volunteer firefighters in 2015 and had to cut hours to part-time firefighters to comply with federal healthcare mandates that require employees on the clock more than 28 hours a week — even if they’re on standby pay — be provided health insurance.
This means the full-time firefighters had to work more overtime to maintain fire protection.
Of the 105 Kettering city employees who made more than $100,000 last year, 34 were in the fire department. Of the 20 highest overtime earners, 14 were in the fire department.
“Unlike a position in an administrative office where you cover with other staff with no overtime, in fire if we have to fill a position, then we have to fill a position and have three people on the truck to meet those minimum standards,” Schwieterman said.
The highest overtime earner, however, was Patrol Officer Vincent Mason, whose $47,828 in extra pay pushed his total compensation to $140,745.
In total, the city actually paid out more overtime to police officers last year — more than $1 million compared to $841,489 for firefighters — but there were 127 people on the police payroll compared to 70 in fire.
Schwieterman is still the highest paid employee in the city and among the highest overall in the area, grossing $190,236 last year.
Schwieterman said the city hopes to reduce firefighter OT this year.
“We hired six additional full-time firefighters at the end of 2015 and they’ll be up and running fully operational in 2016 at some point,” he said. “That gives us the ability to fill the open spots with new regular-pay employees, not overtime.”
Schwieterman disputed any hint that Kettering’s firefighters are overpaid.
“The city of Kettering provides excellent fire service and as a requirement to provide that service it means you have to have the people, they have to be trained, they have to be professionals and there is certain wage that goes with that.
“I don’t find that our wages are out of line with the service delivery that we provide.”
Other area governments also saw large increases in fire personnel making more than $100,000. The number of Washington Twp. workers over that threshold jumped from four in 2014 to 15 in 2015. The top earner was township administrator Jesse Lightle, whose gross pay was $148,049. The other 14 were all fire command staff and firefighters.
Lightle said the township has shifted more overtime to full-time firefighters as part-timers and volunteers have become scarce. The city is working to recruit part-time firefighters.
“Our volunteer population was decreasing and we knew that our response times could improve if we were in-station rather than responding (from) home, to the station, to the scene,” she said. “It’s about service delivery, and it’s providing excellent public safety to our residents.”
Lightle and Schwieterman both said their total payrolls were under budget.
Many in the public take issue with high pay for elected officials and administrators, but not for police and firefighters, according to comments on an I-Team story about Kettering firefighter overtime that was posted on this newspaper’s website Thursday.
“I don’t know … something in my mind says that people that run TOWARDS danger as part of their job deserve more than what they get paid … Firefighters … Police … who cares about overtime?… City council … MEH!,” was the most popular comment, from a reader named Ron Staats.
Catherine Turcer, policy director of the left-leaning Common Cause Ohio, said she would prefer that local governments find a way to hire more people, and pay their health insurance, rather than give out massive overtime and pay administrators more than the Ohio Secretary of State, whose salary was $109,564 last year.
“If you have so much overtime you’re doubling your salary, that’s questionable,” she said.
“In my mind it’s a matter of balance, and when the overtime is so out of whack and the salaries are higher than our secretary of state, the local community needs to reconsider their priorities,” Turcer said. “It doesn’t mean that any of these decisions are easy.”
While police officers and firefighters bulked up the list of six-figure earners, administrators and finance and law directors still often top payroll lists. Of the top five city employees last year in the governments surveyed, four were city managers.
The Ohio Municipal League conducts an annual survey of administrative pay. Of the 63 cities that provided full-time city manager pay last year, they ranged from $66,643 in New Carlisle to $196,000 in Dublin.
“Public entities are always in competition with private entities, and although there’s things like public service that drives an interest of talented individuals in the workforce … there’s obviously a certain level of competitiveness to be attractive for higher-tiered people to be part of administrators, to be part of the organization,” said Kent Scarrett, Ohio Municipal Leage director of communications.
Turcer agreed that governments are pushed from both sides: cutting costs to adapt to revenue cuts while keeping staffing levels necessary to cover city services while providing employees attractive pay and benefits.
“People don’t go into government work to get rich, they go because they feel called to service and because there is some security,” she said.
The largest overtime earner of local governments surveyed was Heather Bell, a civilian dispatcher at the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. Bell would have had to work an average of more than 30 hours a week extra last year to earn her $54,896 in overtime, which brought her total pay to $107,909.
“She works harder than anybody,” said sheriff’s office Capt. Matt Hanes, who oversees the regional dispatch center.
Seven of the top 10 overtime earners in Montgomery County government were dispatchers.
Hanes said a stressful job, crazy hours and noncompetitive pay lead to high turnover, leaving him constantly short-staffed and having to make ends meet with overtime.
“We would rather have all of our positions fully staffed and not have to rely so much on overtime, but that’s not the world we’re living in right now because we lose dispatchers to other centers that pay more money,” he said.
Mongtomery County government also has the two employees who were paid the most last year, both of whom took large payouts when they left their jobs with Job and Family Services.
Former JFS administrator Gayle Bullard took home $205,612 in gross pay in 2015, including $80,198 in sick leave payout and $41,934 in vacation when she retired as part of a departmental restructuring last year.
Heath MacAlpine left his position as JFS assistant director to become assistant director of the Human Service Planning and Development Department. He ranked No. 2 in top pay, bringing in $202,070, including $9,740 in vacation payout and $68,310 in accrued sick leave.
Lawson, with the Buckeye Institute, said the ability to rack up so much sick leave and vacation is a “very lucrative benefit” and very rare in the private sector. He said it’s this type of benefit package that forces local governments to save money by handing out heaps of overtime instead of hiring more people.
“If it is a fiscally prudent maneuver, the only reason it is a fiscally prudent maneuver is because of the overall question of how we compensate (public employees) in the first place,” he said.