Seven Wichita Transit workers made more than $20,000 in overtime last year, an Eagle analysis shows.
And the city’s bus system had the highest average overtime pay of all departments at $4,256 — about eight times more than for firefighters and more than double for police. The water department had the second-highest average overtime pay at $2,876.
Only seven of 126 bus workers last year did not earn any overtime pay.
High overtime pay in transit comes at a time when the city’s bus service is in financial jeopardy. Total transit overtime pay last year — $536,208 — was slightly more than the $500,000 shortfall in transit’s 2012 budget.
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“Overtime has contributed to the financial difficulties of the transit department,” City Manager Robert Layton told The Eagle on Friday in a written response to questions.
However, he added, “Better management of overtime by itself would not have eliminated the transit deficit.”
Staffing problems arise because of vacations, sick leave and family medical leave, and “as a result, there are overtime expenditures,” Layton said.
Overtime wages in transit have made up 7 percent of overall pay in that department so far this year. That’s down slightly from last year, when overtime pay made up almost 8 percent of total wages in transit.
On Friday, the city’s transit advisory board voted to ask the City Council to put a quarter-cent sales tax on the ballot to boost the department’s bottom line.
Earlier last week, the council declined to follow staff’s advice to cut two routes and extend peak service wait times for riders to make up the shortfall, voting 4-3 instead to delay renovating Kennedy Plaza at Century II, cut neighborhood cleanups by half and make small cuts in street maintenance.
Wichita City Council member Jeff Longwell voted against doing so. He said he has questions about overtime pay in transit.
“It concerns me when it becomes a policy issue that changes the way we have to manage the funds in the budget,” Longwell said.
He said a few years ago, the council had “given staff clear direction” to manage overtime better.
A 2008 story in The Eagle reported overtime problems in transit. Then too, transit ate up more overtime compared with base wages than any other department.
Transit director Michael Vinson, then interim director, said in 2008 that overtime in bus service was common. He also said the city had started a new hiring plan to keep a pool of qualified candidates available for driver vacancies.
Layton mentioned that as a solution again Friday. Echoing Vinson from four years ago, he said that “given the high turnover rate and the length of time needed to hire new employees, a pool of ready employees would help the department place qualified persons in positions” faster and reduce overtime pay.
The manager, who joined the city in 2009, said he was not aware that had been talked about the year before he came to Wichita.
Overtime among bus drivers was not as much of an issue in 2010 as was overtime pay among bus mechanics, Layton said.
All bus driver positions were filled in the first quarter of this year, and 64 drivers could meet minimum staffing requirements for all routes.
“However, not all drivers are available to work 40 hours per week,” he said.
Vacation time, sick time and family medical leave brought the number of available drivers down to an equivalent of 52, Layton said, “even though 64 positions were filled.”
He said transit planned to hire a pool of drivers to staff routes when the primary driver was not available.
“However, the hiring process was suspended in light of the proposal to eliminate two routes and peak service,” because 52 drivers would have been enough.
“Because there will be no changes to service,” Layton said, “the plan to hire a pool of additional extra … drivers has been restarted.”
The city is in the early stages of hiring seven drivers, he said.
Layton said overtime pay in transit maintenance was higher last year than so far this year.
“This problem was identified during monthly reviews,” he said.
The city hired and changed work schedules to better match when bus maintenance is needed, he said.
Layton also noted that most of the city’s bus fleet is at the end of its service. The city has 49 buses and 23 vans. Most buses are eligible to be replaced in 2014. Older vehicles require more maintenance, he said.
The city employee with the most overtime pay last year was a bus mechanic who made $32,000 working extra hours. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful. The mechanic also earned the most overtime in 2008, according to The Eagle’s story then.
Transit workers are unionized, and the city offers overtime first to the most senior employee. That employee then has the right to turn down extra hours, and overtime is offered to the next-senior staffer.
City employees earn time-and-a-half for overtime and double time on holidays. Last year, the city paid its employees just more than $4 million in overtime pay.
Layton has asked staff to limit overtime, he said.
“You definitely don’t want a culture where overtime is expected” and employees expect to supplement their salaries, Layton said.
Management receives overtime reports monthly, and each department is “responsible for reviewing the report to determine if the overtime is justified,” Layton said.
Data the city provided Friday showed that hiring extra mechanics would have been slightly more expensive than paying overtime in 2011.
Mechanics at the highest level worked 1,595 overtime hours last year, earning about $48,800. Hiring an additional mechanic would cost $51,266, the city’s report said.
However, it would have been less expensive to hire more bus drivers.
Bus drivers worked 16,212 overtime hours in 2011, earning $368,409. Those hours equaled 7.8 full-time-equivalent positions. It would have cost the city $44,724 to hire each additional driver. The city could have hired seven drivers, leaving 1,652 overtime hours. That would have saved the city $17,797.
“For the most part, it’s probably cheaper to pay overtime,” Longwell said.
He also said, “I can understand maybe a little bit of hesitation on their part (to hire drivers) because of not fully understanding what position the council was going to take on some of these issues.”
Council member Janet Miller, who orchestrated last week’s solution to keep routes, said she thought overtime pay in transit was valid.
“Transit has been under pressure to reduce its expenses as much as it possibly can, and I think they have been diligent in doing that. The finance department has been reviewing their finances for the past 12 or 18 months,” she said. “I’m confident that people are only working when there’s work to be done.”
Layton, however, said he wants to see overtime in transit drop to at least 5 percent of overall pay.
Vinson, who did not return calls Friday, is retiring.
Layton said he plans to “challenge the new person to look at the entire operation from top to bottom. I still want us to continue to challenge the use of overtime and look for other approaches.”
Contributing: Hurst Laviana of The Eagle