Overtime bonanza at Port Authority; 13 officers set to make more than agency’s director

December 25, 2014, 2:26

By ABBOTT KOLOFF

Staff Writer

The Record

Three years after New York State issued a scathing report criticizing what it characterized as excessive overtime at the Port Authority, 131 of the agency’s employees worked so much overtime in the first nine months of this year that they already more than doubled their annual base salaries.

RECORD FILE PHOTO

In this file photo, Port Authority Police observe as marathon runners enter the Lincoln Tunnel.

Thirteen agency police officers received more in salary, overtime and other payments in that period than did Executive Director Patrick Foye, whose annual salary is $289,000.

Most of the top overtime earners are police officers, including one who has been averaging an estimated 100 hours of work a week this year, including 60 hours of overtime. That is the equivalent of working more than 14 hours a day, seven days a week. The top 10 overtime earners are averaging an estimated 46 extra hours each week, a workload that experts say raises questions about efficiency and public safety, and is quite high even in a profession where significant overtime is routine.

The legislatures in both New Jersey and New York have passed identical bills that call for sweeping changes in the way the agency operates, but neither Governor Christie nor New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has indicated whether he will sign the legislation.

Cuomo faces a critical deadline: He must decide by Saturday. Christie must decide by mid-January. Both states must enact the legislation for it to take effect.

While Port Authority officials say that an infusion of 444 police recruits this year has put a significant dent in overtime since October, police overtime had been rising each year since the 2011 New York report, apparently fueled by a five-year gap between recruiting classes, as security expenses have continued to skyrocket since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The substantial overtime figures add to the questions raised about the Port Authority’s actions and management since the closures of toll lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge 15 months ago caused a continuing political uproar and triggered a host of federal, legislative and internal investigations.

An analysis of the Port Authority payroll for the first nine months of 2014 shows that 24 members of the Police Department already had earned more than $100,000 in overtime.

“The whole system needs a top-to-bottom overhaul,” Port Authority Commissioner Kenneth Lipper recently said of the way overtime is handled at the agency. Lipper, who was appointed as a New York representative to the commission last year, recently proposed tying performance raises for department heads to their effectiveness in holding down overtime.

The issue is economic, Lipper said, and may reflect an attempt by some officers to bolster their pensions, which are based on the 36 consecutive months that they earn their highest salary. But not all the top overtime earners, some of whom have more than tripled their base salaries, are closing in on retirement. Half of the top 10 earners this year have been with the agency less than 14 years.

It’s also not clear how much of the overtime is voluntary. Agency police officers are not permitted to refuse orders to work extra hours under most circumstances, according to their union. The agency says it is required to keep some sensitive posts, including some at the region’s airports, staffed at all times by federal mandate. And the issue is not simply economic, according to experts who say excessive overtime is also a public-safety issue because tired officers are more likely to make mistakes.

This year’s top overtime earner has been Officer Morris Cofield, who has a base salary of $90,000 but was paid $262,620 through September, almost $40,000 more than Foye got in the same period. His $172,579 in overtime earnings equal an estimated 59 extra hours of work a week.

Last year, Andrew Kurpat, another officer with a base $90,000 salary, was the agency’s top-paid employee, with $330,856 of earnings, bolstered by $214,643 of overtime and other additional pay. He worked an estimated 56 overtime hours a week for the year. He was one of 11 officers to earn more than Foye’s annual salary in 2013, and one of eight to receive more than $300,000.

The number of hours worked in each case has been estimated by comparing officers’ base salaries for 40-hour workweeks with what they have earned in overtime, which is paid at a rate of 1.5 times regular pay.

The estimate has been adjusted for longevity bonuses included in overtime. There may be other premiums that would inflate overtime pay compared with the number of hours actually worked.

Cofield, hired in 1993, and Kurpat, hired in 1992, both have worked at airports, based on publicly available information posted on union and other websites. The agency declined to identify their present assignments, citing security concerns, or to detail the reasons for their overtime. Neither officer could be reached for comment, nor did they respond to messages. No one has accused any of the officers accumulating overtime of wrongdoing.

A 2011 New York comptroller’s report said “overtime flows like water” at the Port Authority and that the agency should “take a long, hard look at whether its business model for managing overtime really makes sense.” The report cited the Police Department as a major contributor to the problem.

Port Authority officials responded by saying they would rein in those costs, but police overtime continued to rise. The 170,000 hours of overall police overtime through September was 16 percent more than for the comparable period last year and 20 percent above what was budgeted.

One reason for this year’s increase, the agency has said, was the transfer of more than 200 officers to standalone firefighting units at the region’s airports because of a federal requirement, a move opposed by the police union. The Port Authority says it also was hit with unexpected costs, like being required to provide more security than planned at the Bayonne and Goethals bridges when lanes were closed to quicken the pace of construction.

In October, after the 249 new recruits from the August class began working, the agency’s police overtime hours dropped 22 percent from the previous month, according to a preliminary report. The trend continued through November, when overtime hours were down 26 percent compared with September.

“That shows that we are getting near the staffing levels we should have,” said Robert Egbert, a PBA spokesman and a former agency police officer. Before the January 2014 class, the Port Authority’s last batch of recruits graduated in 2009. The PBA had complained to the agency on “numerous occasions” since then about the “need for more police officers,” Egbert said.

Egbert said that the PBA has had an issue with the Port Authority over involuntary overtime. Officers who don’t volunteer for overtime are ordered to work only after volunteers are called, under the union contract. But on some occasions several years ago, Egbert said, he was told to work two consecutive eight-hour shifts and then another four hours, leaving just four hours between shifts.

“Officer fatigue is a concern when we are talking about being forced to work,” he said.

Scott Rechler, a commissioner from New York since 2011, said that overtime was “inevitable” without new recruits but added that he did not know why the agency had waited so long to hire them. He said the agency shifted gears in 2012 after a New York City Police Department veteran, Joseph Dunne, was named its first security chief and made hiring additional officers “one of his first recommendations.”

John DeCarlo, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and a former police chief in Connecticut, said large amounts of overtime are common in police work, but 60 extra hours a week would be extraordinary. He added that studies show an officer’s efficiency drops off greatly after working 12 consecutive hours.

Finance officers have told him it’s less expensive to have veterans work overtime than to pay for a new recruit’s benefits and training, but, he said, there are factors other than cost to consider, like protecting the community.

“Tired officers don’t do that as well,” DeCarlo said.

Sgt. Kevin Cottrell, who has been working an estimated 37 overtime hours each week this year for the emergency services unit, may be an exception. He has been honored for his role in a 2009 shootout in Jersey City, participated in a 2012 rescue of a woman trapped in water at a PATH station during Superstorm Sandy, and helped stop people from jumping from the George Washington Bridge in 2010 and last May.

An agency spokesman, Steve Coleman, acknowledged that the emergency services unit has been short staffed, adding that its members are required to go through extensive training. He said a training course scheduled for February “will address vacancies in the unit,” but did not provide details about how many spots are open or how long the unit has been at less than full strength.

Overtime achievers
The Port Authority’s top 10 overtime earners for 2014 are all members of its police force.
Name Title Salary Jan. through Sept.
Pay OT Total
Morris Cofield Officer $90,000 $69,231 $172,579 $262,620
Elvin Erickson Officer $90,000 $69,231 $159,919 $246,308
Robert Jersey II Officer $90,000 $69,231 $150,383 $236,370
Walter Triesch Officer $90,000 $69,231 $141,067 $220,874
Kevin Cottrell Sergeant $107,911 $83,008 $129,206 $243,745
John Stallone Lieutenant $124,098 $95,460 $127,268 $254,642
Lydia Childs Officer $90,000 $69,231 $124,867 $211,924
Andrew Kurpat Officer $90,000 $69,231 $124,363 $214,536
Carlos Naut Officer $90,000 $69,231 $122,048 $211,218
Stephen Keown Officer $90,000 $69,231 $117,626 $202,434
Source: Port Authority payroll information for 2014, through the end of September

Mobile users, click here to view chart of overtime earners.

Email: koloff@northjersey.com

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