Cashing In After Isaac: N.O. emergency overtime pay during Isaac

Published: Nov. 16, 2012 at 3:52 AM CST|Updated: Apr. 30, 2013 at 2:33 AM CDT
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New Orleans, La. - Some question why some top members of Mayor Landrieu's administration received tens of thousands of dollars in emergency and overtime pay as a result of Hurricane Isaac.

Days before the storm made landfall in southeast Louisiana in late August, Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared a state of emergency, telling residents the city was ready.

New Orleans was mostly spared from flooding, except areas outside the levee protection system. Power outages and wind damage were the biggest problems after the storm.  CAO Andy Kopplin says Isaac resulted in 50 percent more debris than Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

City workers, top to bottom, pitched in to help.

Kopplin says, "From near misses with the Sewerage and Water Board generation, which could have caused boil water notices during that time, to making sure we had folks with severe health issues that were able to be pulled out of compromised positions, we made sure we took care of the health and safety of the public."

The city says it spent $5.1 million on emergency pay and overtime for Isaac.

$3.2 million went to police, $662,000 for firefighters, $346,000 to EMS and $888,000 for other departments and agencies.

Those departments in the "other" category include Homeland Security, Health, Public Works, Parks & Parkways, Sanitation, CAO and the Coroner's Office.

"We had hundreds of people living in City Hall, as well as people in police districts and fire districts, who worked here and slept here when they weren't working," says Kopplin.

"They robbing the city blind with this overtime pay, and I think the citizens should be alarmed by that," says Randolph Scott, a former city employee spokesperson.

He says at a time when many departments and agencies are facing big budget cuts, he's having a hard time understanding one chunk of that post-Isaac payroll.

Scott says, "It's because their salaries are already high salaries, like six-figure salaries, most of them."

The city's six deputy mayors and health director, who on average make more than $150,000 a year and are normally exempt from making overtime, collectively raked in more than $100,000 in both emergency pay and overtime.

FOX 8 scoured payroll documents from the end of August through the end of September.

Kopplin, who makes $179,000 a year, earned an extra $14,000. That includes 117 hours worth of emergency pay and 58 hours of overtime.

Cedric Grant, who's in charge of facilities and infrastructure, was paid for 117 hours of overtime. He racked up almost $16,000 more than usual.

Kopplin says that's because he worked almost non-stop. "When we needed new generators for the Sewerage and Water Board Facility, Deputy Mayor Grant was leading the charge in the middle of the night to get generators flown in so we wouldn't have water boils," says Kopplin.

Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Jerry Sneed also saw an extra $16,000 post-Isaac.

Chief of Staff Judy Morse earned an additional $12,000, including 60 hours of overtime.

Deputy Mayor of Operations Michelle Thomas got paid an additional $14,000, working 108 hours for the emergency, including 70 hours of overtime.

Kopplin says, "We had folks out there inspecting capital projects which are under construction now. We had property management staff out there 24/7 making sure our city assets were being protected during the storm from additional damage."

Emily Arata, deputy mayor of external affairs, earned more than $12,000 extra because of Isaac.

Documents show Health Commissioner Karen DeSalvo worked 134 hours for the storm, including almost 90 hours of overtime. She earned more than $17,000 extra.

And the average city worker?

"Time and a half with a salary on average of $25,000, I think the increase would be minuscule at best, several hundred dollars at best for a struggling city worker," says Scott.

Also for the first time, captains and above at the NOPD made overtime. Superintendent Ronal Serpas told the council this week, the city did the right thing.

"The City of New Orleans, and I want to thank the mayor for this. We paid the white shirts, if you will, who worked 50, 60, 80 hours nonstop," says Serpas, who got paid extra too.

Because of his $189,000 a year salary, he actually saw the fattest post-Isaac check at the NOPD.

He earned $19,098 in one pay period, almost $12,000 more than he usually makes.

Fraternal Order of Police spokesperson Raymond Burkart III doesn't question the extra police compensation. He does wonder why the mayor's executive staff cashed in.

"I think it's safe to say that anybody making over six figures, who's politically appointed or elected, is expected to go above and beyond, versus the $40,000 a year or $60,000 a year police officer who's on the front lines doing search and rescue. I don't believe this was the intent of the law."

The higher-ups in the Fire Department also earned OT for the first time.  New Orleans Fire Chief Charles Parent's overtime and emergency pay was lumped into one check for $18,959, about $13,000 more than his normal bi-weekly paycheck.

"I think certain salaried exempt employees should get paid in emergencies, like deputy chiefs and district chiefs who did not get paid during Hurricane Katrina and worked unusually long hours, month after month," says Nick Felton with the Firefighters' Association.

But he too is concerned and puzzled by the Isaac payroll figures for the Mayor's top aides.

"I just don't see where you have people making six-figure salaries, that they knew coming in, their job was going to require them to work long hours," says Felton. "They're supposed to be the best and the brightest and absolutely it doesn't show well if the Mayor or anyone authorized that pay to be done."

Kopplin admits deputy mayors often work 50 to 60 hours a week, even longer. He says, "The big picture here is in emergencies. There are essential personnel who are required to be here, on duty 24/7, as long as the emergency lasts. They are not able to be with their families, don't get time off, they are required to be on site."

In all, more than two dozen members of the mayor's executive staff, not just deputy mayors, made over $230,000 extra, as a result of the storm.

And then there's the highest paid person on the city's payroll, a man who already makes a whopping $227,000 a year.

New Orleans Aviation Director Iftikhar Ahmad's post-Isaac paycheck was more than twice as much as his normal bi-weekly check.  It totaled $17,796. He worked 75 hours for Isaac, 35 of those overtime.

So high-paid salaried city employees, who have historically been exempt from earning overtime, cashed in like never before.

Turns out the reason dates back to 2010, with a Civil Service rule change that didn't get much attention.

It was shortly after the BP oil spill off the Louisiana Coast.  Mayor Landrieu issued an emergency declaration and Deputy Mayor Sneed monitored the potential impact.

Around the same time, Sneed petitioned the Civil Service Commission to change a decades-old rule specifically relating to emergency overtime compensation in connection with the BP spill to allow all exempt employees, which includes those who aren't hourly, to be compensated for extra hours worked.

The commission agreed and while it was explained to that panel that the rule change would involve overtime pay, that's not how it was explained to the city council right before they voted.

At the council's September 2 meeting in 2010, Cary Grant with the Department of Budget and Planning told council members, "The amendment to the rule redefines disasters as pretty much anything the Mayor declares. Disasters before were mainly hurricanes. This is particularly for the BP oil spill."

In reality, the proposed rule change was not just for the BP spill and it didn't just redefine disasters. It redefined who could make emergency overtime during any future disaster declaration.

We were curious if council members really understood what they unanimously approved.

Jackie Clarkson, Stacy Head and Kristin Palmer all had no comment.

Susan Guidry and Cynthia Hedge Morrell never got back to us.

"If they didn't know, they should have known and I think it's no excuse," says Scott. "If they're already paying people top salary when they come into city government and then they're trying to find a way to pay them additional dollars, taxpayer dollars. And the City Council is already crying the city's broke."

They may all get an earful during the Fire Department's upcoming budget hearing, as NOFD faces cuts in service and personnel.

Felton says, "It will be part of our discussion. Maybe we need to rethink some changes, put some new regulations in place to prevent this type of abuse."

With more than $5 million already paid out of the general fund for Isaac payroll, the city says FEMA has agreed to re-imburse most of the costs, about 75 percent.

Kopplin says that's because the new policy was already in place.

"If the rule is not in place prior to a disaster, FEMA will not allow you to get reimbursed for that overtime, so the rule has to be in place," says Kopplin.

"It doesn't matter because we shouldn't be exploiting FEMA," counters Scott. "FEMA has a role to play. FEMA's supposed to help the needy and not the greedy."

Like other local parishes, the city sent a letter to Governor Bobby Jindal, asking the state to waive the remaining 25 percent of Isaac's costs. Whether that break will come remains to be seen.

Either way, taxpayers foot the bill, as top city executives cash in for the first time during an emergency, in a city with a history of disasters.