Workers in a division of Los Angeles' Department of Transportation collected unusually high amounts of overtime pay, costing the city $3.3 million in a single year and raising concerns some of the extra pay may have been claimed improperly, according to a new audit.
City Controller Ron Galperin released a report Tuesday showing workers in the department's traffic paint and sign division billed an average of $48,100 in overtime in fiscal year 2013-14. That compared with $8,377 in other city departments, not including the police and fire departments, or other parts of the transportation department.
Four supervisors in the traffic paint and sign division received at least $70,000 in overtime during the year examined, and one traffic marking and sign superintendent effectively tripled his salary by claiming $155,319 in overtime, on top of his $78,000 annual salary, according to the audit.
"That's staggering," Galperin said in an interview.
The controller added that the high amount of overtime combined with a lack of proper controls within the department raised questions about whether employees were truly working during all the extra hours.
"One might reasonably conclude that at least some of the employees in the Traffic Paint and Sign section were committing payroll fraud," the audit said. But at this time, the report said, there isn't sufficient evidence to support a referral to criminal investigators or prosecutors.
Although overtime is often appropriate, Galperin said, department officials were unable to show that the overtime had been preapproved or detail the work done during the extra hours.
"There is not evidence to show that the work was not done," he said, "but then again, there is not evidence to show what was done."
Appearing at a Tuesday morning news conference with Galperin, Seleta Reynolds, the new general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said she has accepted the controller’s findings and promised to reform her agency’s overtime policies.
She said one supervisor has been removed and another assigned to a different city department. Reynolds declined to elaborate, stating that personnel matters are confidential under state law. Both workers, however, remain city employees, she added.
Reynolds outlined a plan that includes updating and clarifying procedures, better monitoring of overtime and seeking more staff and resources for the paint and sign division, including the hiring of private contractors.
During the period covered by the audit, Reynolds said some of the overtime in question could have resulted from increasing workloads. While Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was in office, more than 100 miles of bike lanes and thousands of miles of resurfaced city streets needed to be striped.
“With three crews and two trucks it was hard to keep up,” said Reynolds, adding that the City Council has approved at least 20 new employees for the paint and sign unit.
The audit noted that staffing levels in the division have decreased 20% since 2010 and new projects may have required more hours of work. But Galperin said he doesn't think that justified a 263% increase in overtime in the division in the same period.
The audit found that 30 of the division's 67 employees claimed more than 1,000 hours of overtime in 2013-14, with seven of those claiming more than 2,000 in a year. Galperin said 2,000 hours of overtime in a year would equate to 38 hours of overtime every week.
The audit also found overtime dropped an average of 44% among the largest recipients of the extra pay in the traffic paint and sign division after the audit began. Galperin said that suggested some employees may have been improperly collecting overtime and curtailed claims when auditors began scrutinizing the records.
"It certainly raises a lot of very serious questions," he said.
Among other things, the audit found the department's overtime policies are outdated and inconsistent, relying on paper forms and unclear guidelines on who is authorized to preapprove overtime, the audit found.
Galperin's recommendations include updating department record-keeping procedures and creating an annual overtime usage plan.
“This report puts everyone on notice,” Galperin said. “We are doing data-mining of payroll records of other city departments to identity problems.”