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County police overtime balloons pensions

Post-9/11 extra work for 40 employees adds $9 million in benefits

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

An Allegheny County police officer has already made $111,969 in overtime compensation this year and as a result would receive an annual pension of $98,569 if he retires next year, county Controller Dan Onorato reported yesterday.

Stationed at Pittsburgh International Airport, officer Gerry Fischer has been pulling double shifts, sometimes working seven days a week, in the post-9/11 era of heightened security. The 28-year veteran stands to make $202,000 this year in total compensation, at his current overtime pace.

In comparison, county Chief Executive Jim Roddey will make $90,000. Airport authority Executive Director Kent George makes $185,000 yearly.

Fischer's figures were the most extreme in Onorato's review of county police overtime payments.

The controller found that the 40 police employees who are eligible to retire with full pension benefits will receive a total of $807,031 in overtime wages this year, up from $531,827 last year. Under the county's pension formula, the overtime compensation will entitle those employees to an extra $9 million in retirement benefits over their lifetimes, or an extra $10,450 a year on average.

The pensions of the 40 employees would average $45,100.

"You look at these numbers and you scratch your head and say, 'Wait a minute here,' " Onorato said.

The money to pay Fischer and the other 65 or so officers who work at the airport comes from the Allegheny County Airport Authority, not from the county's $658 million general operating budget. In turn, the authority gets money from the airlines and the federal government to cover security costs.

All county employees contribute 5 percent of their income to the pension fund and the county matches the contributions dollar for dollar. For the officers at the airport, the airport authority reimburses the county for the match.

Leaders of the county police union characterized the pension-boosting overtime figures as aberrations.

"We didn't cause 9/11. Will this ever happen again? This is not normal," said Allegheny County Police Association President James Hasara, an airport officer who ranks behind Fischer in overtime compensation this year, with $65,672 received so far.

But the avalanche of overtime, even if only a year in duration, will pad officers' pensions for their entire retirements.

County pensions are based on employees' two biggest years of compensation in their last four years of service.

Until 2001, county pensions were capped at $52,000 a year. But a change in state law eliminated the cap, allowing officers like Fischer to fatten their pensions with overtime shifts.

If the 54-year-old officer's pension was based solely on his salary, his annual pension would be $36,000. Instead, he can look forward to a pension of more than $100,000 a year, once cost-of-living increases kick in.

Fischer was the department's top-paid employee in 2001, too, when he made a relatively paltry $96,973, including $42,968 in overtime.

Fischer could not be reached for comment.

Hasara complained that the scope of Onorato's review was limited to the police.

"I'm sure throughout the county government, there are other employees eligible for retirement," the union president said. "Why are we being singled out?"

Onorato said no other county department spends nearly as much on overtime.

"It's just too high," he said of the county police overtime payments. "It's excessive."

Sheriff's office employees eligible for retirement next year have only made a total of $51,000 in overtime this year, less than half of what Fischer has made all by himself, according to Onorato.

Retired county police Lt. James McGrath, chairman of the board that oversees the county's $600 million pension fund, said he does not begrudge Fischer the money.

"Gerry Fischer has no home life," said McGrath, whose annual pension is $19,200. "It isn't like he is being paid for not being there. He works for it."

County Manager Bob Webb, a member of the pension board, said a detailed actuarial study would be required to determine if this year's overtime payments will significantly affect the county's pension fund in future years.

Of Onorato's review, Webb said, "I don't know what the point is, frankly."

Assistant Police Superintendent Paul Wolf, who is eligible for a $64,000 annual pension, said overtime will likely remain a fact of life for a department squeezed between aviation security concerns and a hiring freeze.

All the officers at the airport have an equal shot at overtime shifts. But nobody takes nearly as many as Fischer, Wolf said.

"This individual seldom, if ever, turns down overtime," he said.

Jeffrey Cohan can be reached at jcohan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3573.

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