Editor’s Note: This is the last in The county Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Fire Authority are hired by many cities to provide police and fire services. Their contracts are consistently some of the costliest items in local budgets, which are being voted on this month by city officials.
In the face of massive revenue shortfalls caused by the still-sputtering economy, Orange County agencies are looking for ways to save money.
Few departments are exempt, and public safety employees—consistently the most expensive rank-and-file county employees—are also on the chopping block.
There have been several contract re-openers for the unions that organize employees of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Fire Authority, and the new contracts chip away at the generous benefits negotiated in years past.
The new contracts include wage freezes and increases in the portion paid into the beleaguered public retirement system. Other cutbacks include re-jiggering work schedules to reduce overtime and creating a lower tier for new hires that comes with fewer benefits.
Orange County Sheriff's Department Cuts
Last month, the results of a follow-up performance audit of the Sheriff’s Department payroll were presented to the Board of Supervisors.
The board praised Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and the department for cutting overtime by $25.9 million over two years, a 54 percent reduction, according to the county’s performance auditor.
As a result, the department produced the lowest numbers it has seen since before the 2003-04 fiscal year, which was the first year included in a 2008 audit that was critical of the department's overtime spending.
During the 2009-2010 fiscal year, there were 366,931 hours allotted to overtime, totaling $21,643,128. That's down from nearly $48 million in 2007-08.
The department instituted several changes advised in the original audit, which contributed to the steep reduction in overtime.
Such changes included adjusting staffing patterns, implementing a new work schedule and tweaking the labor agreement negotiations. Closing the women's jail led to a huge cost savings. Those inmates were relocated to lockups in other county facilities, said Jane Reyes, Sheriff's Department senior director of administrative services.
"That was a pretty complicated movement of personnel," Reyes said.
As for staffing, the Sheriff's Department was restructured. The changes included reduced funding for 296 positions and a $41-million reduction in salary and employee benefit costs.
Since 2008, the Sheriff’s Department has instituted considerable limitations on what qualifies as overtime. This was largely in response to the original audit's finding that 100 employees had earned more than 50 percent of their base pay in overtime.
The April follow-up audit showed a significant decline. Fifty-three employees of nearly 4,000 earned from 35 percent to 44 percent of their pay in overtime.
No employee earned more than 44 percent of his or her total wages in overtime.
Since fiscal year 2007-08, the Sheriff's Department has absorbed budget cuts and managed to keep last year’s overtime expenses under budget for the second time in 10 years.
According to the new policy, which was adopted in June 2010, all overtime requests must be approved in advance by a supervisor, and employees may work no more than 48 hours of overtime per 40-hour pay period. Also, there is a policy limit of 16 hours in a 24-hour period.
In addition, the department tweaked its union contracts to mandate "straight overtime," meaning deputies can collect overtime only for hours worked, not when paid vacation and sick hours push them into the overtime threshold, Reyes said.
Fire Authority Cuts
In the face of big budget shortfalls that have been afflicting agencies throughout the state, Orange County fire officials say they are continuing to cut personnel costs.
A provision in recently re-negotiated firefighter contracts states that the general fund must be balanced for pay raises to occur. Union members voted to approve the package, even though analysis showed that pay raises would be unlikely, according to Lori Zeller, assistant chief of business services for the Fire Authority.
The Fire Authority has recently re-negotiated union contracts with the O.C. Professional Firefighters Association, the O.C. Chief Officers Association and the O.C. Employees Association, Zeller said.
“We have addressed pensions with these contract negotiations,” Zeller said. “They’ll be paying more toward [their retirement] now.”
New provisions of the firefighters’ contract call for employees to pay toward retirement with a four-year phase-in, up to 9 percent, Zeller said.
A new tier of firefighter will be created for those hired after July 1, 2012—those firefighters won’t be able to retire with full benefits until age 55, five years later than under the current contract.
These changes will save the Orange County Fire Authority about $27 million over four years, Fire Authority spokesman Kris Concepcion said.
A similar contract signed by the Orange County Public Employees Association on May 26 will save the department $1.35 million over four years, Concepcion said.
That contract includes the phase-up of retirement contributions to 9 percent and creates a lower tier for new employees, which means their retirement benefits will be reduced by more than a third compared with their more senior colleagues, Concepcion said.
-- San Clemente Patch Editor Adam Townsend contributed to this article.
Read the first four parts of this Patch series: