Peoria (IL) Police & Fire Departments Had $4.6M in 2020 Overtime

Andy Kravetz

Journal Star, Peoria, Ill.


Jun. 17—PEORIA — Last year, members of the Peoria Police Department earned nearly $3 million in overtime, but the head of the officers’ union says the bigger paychecks are also creating headaches for his rank and file.

Having fewer officers employed by the city — 204 today compared to 210 last June and 220 five years ago — has led to a glut of overtime, some of which is “ordered” by commanding officers to fill holes in the schedule, says Troy Skaggs, the head of the Peoria Police Benevolent Association.

He said officers are often ordered in to make sure they are enough officers on the street and that can take place during their time off. It’s “frustrating,” he said.

“Officer wellness and the mental aspect has to be dealt with,” he said. “Officers need a break and time away to decompress. You see people on their worst days. That wears on you whether you realize it or not.

“This job is hard but when you have this all this overtime and all the ‘order-ins’, it’s even more taxing,” Skaggs said.

Skaggs’ boss, Interim Police Chief Douglas Theobald, said having to order officers in on their time off isn’t something he relishes but there are needs of the department and public safety.

“We need to maintain a certain numbers of officers on the street for officer safety and to provide the necessary service. We have less and less officers, so that causes overtime,” he said, adding that while some volunteer for overtime, others don’t. If not enough people volunteer to cover a shift, then someone has to be told to do it, he said.

Overtime is no small part of the budgets for both the police and fire departments. Combined, the two had $4.6 million in overtime that went to their rank and file for 2020.

Last year, the Peoria Fire Department spent $1.6 million on overtime. By contract, the department must have at least three firefighters on each truck or engine, then-Fire Chief Tony Ardis told the Journal Star before his retirement earlier this spring.

As such, if a person is sick or injured or out for training, that vacancy must be replaced.

Over on the police side, the department spent $2.973 million to pay its officers beyond their normal shifts. Like the fire service, the police department has minimum staffing levels that it must maintain. But there are also a slew of other reasons, both planned and unplanned, that contribute to that overtime number.

Of the total, $821,347 — roughly 27% of all overtime — was spent on filling spots each day created by training, vacations, personal days, military leave and people who were injured or sick.

Employees in both departments are represented by unions with contracts that spell out when they earn overtime and at what rate. In order to properly staff a shift, overtime is the only option if there aren’t enough bodies; comp time isn’t allowed, Theobald said.

Within the PPD, there are about 220 people who can get overtime, including more than two dozen civilian employees. Only the top five police officials — the chief, assistant chief and three captains — are ineligible.

Within the police department, the amount of extra pay varies widely, with many employees making at least $10,000 in overtime. It adds up quickly, given that most police officers make more than $30 a hour, with contract provisions granting time-and-a-half or double-time depending on the overtime worked.

Police officer Brian Skaggs, Troy Skaggs’ brother, earned $56,906 in overtime last year. Officer Aaron Legaspi earned $61,879 for his overtime shifts in 2020. Others in the department pulled in $20,000 or more in overtime.

On the fire side, the totals aren’t as much. Battalion Chief Nate Rice had the most in the department at $24,919 for 2020.

Civil unrest last May and June that followed George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis offers an example of how overtime can spiral out of control within a day. Over a four-day period, when stores throughout the city saw property damage and looting, the department called in all its employees except those who were injured or had previously arranged time off.

As a result, the department spent $63,358 in overtime.

To put that number into perspective, the police department spent $128,000 in overtime related the 14 homicides that occurred in 2020. That would include both officers working the fatal incident as well as others who were filling in on duties other officers were taken away from.

Now-retired Police Chief Lorien Marion III said earlier this year that the number for homicide investigations doesn’t just include actual death investigations. Rather, because the first 48 hours after any crime can be the most important in solving it, overtime could be granted in the case of a shooting if it appears that it could become more serious.

Theobald agreed:

“With multiple shootings or a homicide, that’s going to draw people in at night,” he said. “Sometimes there is a need for more than one detective on those things or multiple teams. We have them available to come in or sometimes we have them already here.”

And violent crime such as homicides could mean overtime for officers who aren’t working that specific incident. Crime scene officers could be called in to collect evidence. A traffic officer could be asked to digitally scan the area using a 3-D imaging machine. Other officers could be pulled from their patrol areas to help keep an area secure.

“Homicide is costly all the way around for the police department,” Theobald said. “We don’t stop taking calls from the other parts of town just because we have a homicide.”

Overtime can also come from court cases. While some hearings are prescheduled, trials are often unpredictable and officers can sometimes wait for hours to testify only to be told to come back the next day. For an officer who works at night, any testimony at trial would be on overtime.

And there’s also required, annual training for police officers. While the department tries to plan its schedules for that, Theobald said, there’s simply no way to fully staff all the shifts with the current number of employees without overtime. And a person being sick could throw off schedules.

“We would have to add 10-20 officers to patrol division to cover (those vacant shifts),” he said, noting the police department isn’t like a private business. “We don’t have a closed sign here. We are 24/7 and we try to plan and manage our resources, but we don’t know on the day to day what is going to happen.”

Over on the fire side, Ardis said each shift has a list of people in order of who gets overtime. When a slot comes open, the first person on the list is offered the extra work. If he or she accepts it, then they go to the bottom of list.

“This is designed to get everyone the same opportunities for overtime,” the chief said. “Do guys fight to get it? We have members who will take overtime every time they get offered it, we have members who take it sometimes, and we have members who never take overtime.”

The main reason for overtime within the fire department is staffing.

“If we are below our approved complement to start with, and then we have duty injuries, off-duty injuries, military leave, etc., and we have less than 42 firefighters for that shift day, we must pay overtime to fill the vacancies,” Ardis said. “We also occasionally have special events or long-lasting incidents that tie up several of our machines so, we may (bring) back firefighters to ensure the citizens are protected.”

Part of the reason for the overtime is the number of firefighters within the department. In 2020 after the shuttering of one fire house, the authorized number of firefighters for the city was 168. However, the department only had 157, said James Bachman, who was recently named fire chief.

That’s why injuries and sick employees can have more of an effect.

So, why not just hire more firefighters so less overtime is payed out?

“Several municipalities have taken the stance it is cheaper to pay police and firefighters overtime than hire more,” his predecessor, Ardis, said. “They take into account benefits when they make this decision.

“Even back in the day, Mayor (Dave) Ransburg and Alan Pennington were at odds over this. One wanted to hire, and one said it was cheaper to pay overtime,” the chief added, referring to Peoria’s mayor from 2001-05 and a city human resources employee at the time.

Ryan Brady, the president of the Peoria Firefighters Local 50, said overtime comes to members of his union due to the short staffing.

‘In order to keep the level of services that we are accustomed to, we need to have overtime,” he said, agreeing that it’s a cost analysis. But, he argues, there’s a breaking point.

“When you’re short staffed and people are constantly working, it leads to fatigue, burnout and workplace injuries,” Brady said. “When you burn the candle at both candles, injuries are going to increase.”

Bachman said there are 16 people at the fire academy who are scheduled to begin work for the department in late August or early September. That, combined with a few retirements since last year, should bring the department up to its authorized strength and reduce the need for overtime.

City Manager Patrick Urich said it’s simple math.

“The reality of this is that with pension costs growing every year, it is cheaper for the city right now to hire an existing employee at time and a half which is not pensionable,” he said, rather than hiring a new officer or firefighter and then jacking up pension costs.

For years, City Hall has sounded the alarm on increasing public safety pension costs, on which the city spends about 85% of its property tax revenue.

Right now, the total compensation package for a firefighter or a police officer is roughly split between their actual salary and their benefits. For instance, a rookie police officer makes about $60,000 in their first year. Their pension cost to the city is about $40,000 in that first year.

That goes up as an officer or a firefighter makes more money. But overtime pay doesn’t count toward pension costs.

“At this point in time, it is more cost effective for the taxpayers than if we were to hire additional staff, and that’s because the cost of pensions are growing so much,” Urich said.

Zach Oyler, who is an at-large member of the Peoria City Council, noted that all the overtime accrued by the two departments falls within their annual budget.

“Just because it’s overtime, doesn’t mean it’s over budget,” he said, adding that as of now, it’s more fiscally responsible to pay overtime than to hire more people.

And the councilmember used the $5 million paid last year as an example. Had that been work done by new officers or firefighters, the pay would have been about $3 million given that overtime is generally 1 1/2 times normal pay. But adding in benefits which include pensions and health care, that number comes close to doubling, he said.

So, for right now, he supports the city’s strategy, noting that no one has come to him complaining about too much overtime or about the cost.


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