Chicago taxpayers spent nearly $210 million on police and fire overtime last year — and another $33.7 million on lump-sum payments to departing employees, most of them police officers, records show.
One retiring officer walked out the door with $276,053 for stockpiled compensatory time and another $9,236 for unused vacation days.
Records released to the Chicago Sun-Times in response to a Freedom of Information Act request show scores of other six-figure checks and hundreds of payments that topped $20,000.
In private industry, employees are routinely required to use comp time within a defined period of time. They are not allowed to accumulate a career’s worth of comp time and cash it out when they leave.
City tradespeople and members of AFSCME get cash only for overtime. Their most recent contracts do not allow for comp time.
Chicago police officers are exceptions to that rule.
“When they do earn this overtime, they have that option of electing pay or comp time,” Budget Director Susie Park told the Sun-Times. “There’s another provision in the contract that says we will not restrict the accumulation of comp time.”
Park said the “best way” to control costs “is to manage the overtime before it is earned and turned into comp time. … When we start there, that restricts the amount of comp time they are allowed to take and carry over. We’re trying to start that on the front end — before you even earn it.”
Five months ago, the Sun-Times reported the Chicago Police Department had spent $67.6 million on overtime through the first six months of 2019 despite a 10-year high in staff and an all-time high in technology.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she was “angry and frustrated” and planned to hold then-Police Supt. Eddie Johnson personally accountable for reining in an abuse that beleaguered Chicago taxpayers “can’t afford.”
Johnson is gone, fired for “lying” to the mayor about an embarrassing drinking and driving incident in mid-October.
Meanwhile, Lightfoot’s attempt to put the Police and Fire Departments on the hot seat about runaway overtime has not yet produced tangible results.
Through Nov. 30, the city spent $131.2 million on police overtime, matching the 12-month total for the year before.
The Fire Department overtime was even worse. The department spent $78.7 million through Nov. 30, a 16 percent increase from the 12-month total the year before and a more than sixfold increase from the $12.8 million spent on overtime in 2011.
Fire Department spokesperson Larry Langford referred questions about the overtime surge to the city’s Office of Budget and Management.
Budget spokesperson Kristen Cabanban said the spike was “principally driven” by 456 vacancies in the uniformed ranks and by “minimum manning requirements” in the firefighters contract that “specifies the number of members required on all apparatuses at all times and the number of existing companies which all must be maintained.”
The minimum manning requirement triggered the bitter 1980 firefighters strike. It requires every piece of fire apparatus to be staffed by at least five employees.
“The department will continue to address overall overtime by, among other things, focusing strategically on the hiring and promotion pipeline,” Cabanban said.
“As of 2019, the CFD has eliminated the use of mandatory overtime that was once relied on to staff the [five] new ambulances recently added into service.”
Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said “major structural changes” have now been put in place in an effort to control overtime going forward.
Police personnel finally started swiping in and out of work in September. Each commander is now given an overtime budget to manage. Every two weeks, that overtime spending is “audited within the Compstat process,” he said.
“Essentially, you have to articulate operational needs to justify overtime expenditures,” Guglielmi said.
“Now, you have electronic records monitoring … exact amounts of overtime. Overtime has to be pre-authorized. You can’t just swipe out at later periods. That has to be pre-requested and approved through supervision in accordance with the overtime budgeting plan.”
All of those systems — and the new Office Of Public Safety Administration that will help to ride herd over overtime — took time to implement and “work the kinks out,” Park said.
“It’s frustrating that the numbers are high and continue to be so. But the mayor has spoken to her cabinet members. They know that these numbers are unacceptable and we do need to bring them down,” Park said.