Waiting for overtime answers

On Tuesday night, shortly after the huge pipeline explosion not far from Shelley, the City of Prince George activated its Emergency Operations Centre. If area residents were going to be forced out of their homes for any length of time, the city was prepared to work with the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George (and likely the Lheidli T'enneh First Nation) to help affected individuals.

This is what everyone expects government to do during times of crisis, whether it's here or on the Florida Panhandle to help victims of Hurricane Michael.

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Unfortunately in Prince George, one can't help but wonder who's getting paid and how much to respond to these emergencies.

Unionized city employees called back to work to help with any problem - major or minor - are paid overtime under the language of their collective bargaining agreements. No one questions those payments or the need to pay them.

The issue lies with salaried, non-union city employees and particularly the directors and general managers, who work under the Exempt Employee Overtime policy.

As previous editorials showed, the city's senior managers collected thousands of dollars of overtime each during the 2017 Cariboo wildfires evacuation. While senior management already receive an extra two weeks of holiday time per year in lieu of overtime, they are allowed to collect overtime - at double their hourly rate - during serious events that require provincial government assistance. It was the province which ultimately paid the city manager $235.72 an hour for her 70 hours of overtime in 2017 and the eight others between $178.70 and $193 per hour, based on their position.

So when the Emergency Operations Centre was activated again this year, this week for the gas pipeline explosion and this summer for wildfire evacuees to the north and west of Prince George, more than a few people cynically wondered how much overtime - and the big pay that comes with it - would be racked up by the city's top managers.

For anyone wanting to know how much the City of Prince George billed the provincial government for this summer's evacuation and how much city staff - and particularly senior managers - earned in overtime, the answers are months away.

"Regarding your questions, although the City's Emergency Support Service operations relating to this summer's efforts to accommodate wildfire evacuees are now significantly reduced in size, the City is still providing support to a few evacuees," wrote city spokesperson Michael Kellett in an email. "Consequently, we don't yet have the final number you refer to in your first question. We expect that this number will be compiled and provided to the Province later this year or early next year."

Since city council has been critical of how the city's response to these issues has been shared with Citizen readers, here is the rest of Kellett's email:

"As for your second question, the City plans to issue a communication to media and the general public later this year or early in the new year that will include detailed information about the financial aspects of the 2018 Emergency Operations Centre and Emergency Support Services operations including staff compensation.

"Staff need enough time to review fully and account for all the expenses incurred in such a large-scale operation. Wildfire expenses must be vetted for completion and accuracy, and it must be verified that all necessary documentation has been compiled to ensure the eligibility of the expenses.

"The Citizen's similar information request from this summer, while time-consuming and labour-intensive for staff to compile, was in fact easier to accommodate given that much of that accounting had already been done prior to submission to the BC Government and in the preparation of the SOFI report."

The SOFI report is the Statement of Financial Information, a document local governments are required to produce annually. Among other information, the SOFI lists the names of all city employees who earn more than $75,000 in total annual income (the word they use is remuneration) and how much they received in the previous year. It was the 2017 SOFI, when compared to the previous three years, that led to the discovery of the significant raises for senior staff, which then led to the overtime pay issue.

The 2017 SOFI was dumped into an agenda package this past June during the same meeting when mayor and council were looking at a report from that recommended significant raises for the next mayor and council. It's safe to say the SOFI was hardly at the top of their radar.

Fair enough that it will take city staff more time and potentially into 2018 to assess how much was spent, who was paid overtime and how much for this past summer's evacuation.

But it also shouldn't be that hard to find out if nine specific city employees - the City of Prince George's senior management team - earned any overtime this summer dealing with evacuees.

Unfortunately, the answer is not forthcoming any time soon.

-- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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