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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Working for city of Nashua can be lucrative

NASHUA – Of the 44 city employees who took home more than $100,000 last year, two-thirds used overtime and other bonus pay to reach six figures.

As in years past, the Nashua school superintendent and the police and fire chiefs topped the list of city salaries in 2011, according to records released by the city’s payroll department.

Mark Conrad, now in his third year as superintendent, earned $135,810 in 2011; Donald Conley, the city’s recently retired police chief, collected $123,086; and Fire Rescue Chief Brian Morrissey earned $116,520.

Also, as in years past, the list of the city’s top earners is speckled with employees, mostly police officers and firefighters, whose salaries fell below $100,000 but who collected enough overtime and other pay to boost their earnings.

Of the city’s 44 six-figure earners, 29 used overtime and other pay, ranging from $1,000 to $54,000.

Nashua Police Capt. John Fisher, for instance, was scheduled to collect a salary of $99,401 in 2011, according to the salary database.

When he left the department last year, he cashed in unused vacation time, among other supplements that helped him build a total income of $128,860.

That total placed him above Morrissey, the fire chief, who took in a total of $125,181, as well as all the police and fire deputy chiefs, and left him more than $30,000 ahead of Mayor Donnalee Lozeau, who earned $105,363 in 2011.

Another officer, Kevin Landry, was due to earn $64,414 in 2011, but he was able to nearly double his salary, earning $118,194.27, according to city records.

“Our police officers work very hard. They deserve everything they get,” Lozeau said last week. “If you have officers who are raising their family and are willing to spend the time to earn extra pay, I have no problem with that.

“But I do think the onus is on the police commission and the chief to make sure they are staffing at the appropriate levels.”

Lozeau was the 29th highest-paid person on the city payroll in 2011.

Overtime and pensions

The police and fire departments include millions of dollars in their budgets each year to cover overtime shifts.

But those costs add up over subsequent years as part of the state’s pension program.

The New Hampshire Retirement System, which issues pensions to police officers and firefighters among other public employees, considers overtime pay when determining retirement pay, according to program policies.

System officials determine the annual pension awards by averaging the worker’s top five years of total earnings, which includes overtime payments on top of salary and other income, and multiplying that by a “benefit factor” between 2 and 2.5, depending on years of service, according to Marty Karlon, spokesman for the Retirement System.

These payments have left the state facing an unfunded liability of $4 billion, meaning the state has promised about $4 billion in benefits to workers, both current and retired, that it doesn’t have the funds to pay, Karlon said.

State lawmakers have been working in recent years to change the system before it goes bankrupt.

Last year, legislators voted to eliminate construction details and other extra shifts funded by a third party from the pension calculation, and this year they’re considering legislation proposing to replace the current pension system with an employee-contributed system similar to a 401(k).

The Legislature also has passed a law limiting the amount of overtime costs included in the pension calculation to prevent workers from taking more shifts as they near retirement to pad their payments.

That provision won’t take effect until several years down the road, when Retirement System officials have collected records of workers’ overtime histories, Karlon said.

In the meantime, local officials are left to work within the current overtime laws.

In Nashua, neither the police nor the fire department has altered its overtime policies in recent years, said Morrissey and new Police Chief John Seusing.

The fire department awards its overtime shifts based on scheduling. In the case of illness, injury or vacation, on-duty firefighters are asked to stay on and work a double shift to make up for the absences, and if a “severe incident” arises calling for additional coverage, department leaders call in extra workers based on who has worked most recently.

“It’s a time-proven, effective, efficient way of utilizing our existing manpower,” Morrissey said.

The Police Department bases its overtime schedule on a balance of fatigue and fairness, said Seusing, who was sworn in as chief in January.

Construction sites and other detail shifts paid for by outside companies are made available to off-duty officers on a first-come, first-served basis, he said.

As for department shifts, administrators looking to fill a vacancy will target specific officers who haven’t recently worked extra hours.

The overtime policy, in place for decades, is meant to avoid overworking the officers and to spread out the overtime pay, Seusing said.

“Fatigue is a part of it, but unfortunately, there’s overtime that needs to be worked,” he said. “We want to make sure that it’s offered fairly.”

Some police officers and firefighters accept more overtime shifts than others, the chiefs said. For example, Landry added about $54,000 to his annual salary in 2011 through overtime and other payments. Officers are provided the same opportunity for the extra work, Seusing said.

Cutting back on overtime

With the departments’ overtime policies set, city officials have instead focused on the total overtime budgets to monitor costs.

Last year, fire department officials and aldermen agreed to reduce the fire department’s overtime budget by about $70,000 – part of $318,000 in overall cuts, Morrissey said.

In the Police Department, the current city budget, instituted in July, included nearly $660,000 in cuts to the overtime budget.

“We’ve always wanted to try to keep overtime costs under control to the extent that we can,” Alderman Brian McCarthy said last week. “We need to understand what amount of time do we need to pay for to provide safe streets in Nashua.”

Seusing and Morrissey contend that the overtime cuts have put the squeeze on their departments, which aren’t fully staffed.

The fire department is down eight firefighters from its roster of 170, Morrissey said, and the Police Department is seven officers down from its maximum of 177, along with several other officers who are away for academy and field training.

“We’re doing our best to look for ways to absorb the cuts, and frankly, we’re having some difficulties this year,” said Seusing, who is considering reassigning the department’s school and senior resource officers to cover basic shifts.

The departmental changes pale in comparison with those needed to bring order and savings to the state Retirement System, said Lozeau, who supports eliminating overtime costs entirely from the pension calculation.

“It’s difficult, because it puts us in what feels like an adversarial position,” she said last week.

“We have amazing city employees. For most positions, we could not pay them what they are worth, but we also have an obligation to the future employees, and it’s important for both current and future employees to have a system that is sound and will last into the future.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com.