As Missoula County zeroes in on a preliminary budget proposal for 2018, overtime pay at the sheriff’s office has suddenly become a high-profile issue. A Missoulian investigation published last week focused on overtime accrued by the office’s four captains in the past two and a half years—including as much as $66,000 by one captain in 2015. The amounts have not gone unnoticed by county commissioners.
“It brought up a lot of questions,” says Commissioner Cola Rowley, “and we need to have conversations about specifically what is the reason for this, and is this a reasonable number to be spending on four people for overtime.”
The expense, according to Sheriff T.J. McDermott, is partly due to staffing issues that arose shortly after he took office in 2015. At that point, McDermott tells the Indy, the office had 11 unfilled positions, accounted for by six incoming deputies undergoing training, two out with injuries, two retired, and one recently fired. McDermott says the staffing shortfall prompted the commission to grant his office four new deputies that year, and that overtime paid to captains has declined as staffing has increased.
“For a brief moment this year, around April, we were fully staffed at the sheriff’s office,” he says. “We then had a few retirements … and other personnel-related matters … that created some vacancies. So we’re close.”
McDermott says his office also came up with a new form for tracking overtime generated by specific duties. Overtime is an ongoing concern, he continues, since it’s a portion of his budget most likely to be overspent.
How the public attention on overtime will play into budget negotiations won’t become clear until July 25, when Commissioner Dave Strohmaier expects the issue to come up during a budget meeting with the sheriff’s personnel. Strohmaier says the public will also have an opportunity to see the current overtime request during the commission’s preliminary budget hearing on July 27. He acknowledges public interest in the topic and says “it’s probably worth at least probing a little,” but adds that explanations offered by the sheriff’s office appear legitimate.
“So far I’ve heard from no one in response to the recent media coverage about the sheriff’s office’s overtime pay,” Strohmaier says. “If folks have questions or concerns or thoughts on that matter, or anything else related to the budget, we haven’t approved the thing yet.”
Rowley says she was surprised by the expenses revealed by the Missoulian. Still, she says, the sheriff’s office has identified its overtime policy as an area for improvement. Even though the commission’s authority is strictly budgetary, Rowley and Strohmaier both say overtime is an issue they’ll be following closely.
“It is a tough balance, because we definitely want overtime to be managed,” Rowley says, “but protecting the public safety is going to require overtime hours, and it’s going to be in the middle of the night.”