The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 21, 2013

State troopers reap overtime bonanza

One’s pay for year surpassed governor

John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Bureau

PITTSBURGH — Three state police troopers racked up so much overtime last year that they were paid more than the head of the state police or the attorney general. One trooper picked up almost $100,000 in overtime, so he ended up getting paid more than the governor.

All three troopers retired by the end of the year, a state police spokesman said.

For state employees, making all that money in the final year of their working career has an important benefit in Pennsylvania: It boosts the pension benefits they will receive for the rest of their lives. Those benefits are based on an average of the workers’ final three years of employment.

Concerns about the public costs that follow when governments allow workers to run overtime in the waning days of their careers have prompted “anti-spiking” legislation in a number of states, and it is one of the under-the-radar reforms tucked in the pension plan proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett to avoid making $500 million in employer contributions this year.

Three of the nine northeastern states do not include overtime in the calculation used to determine how much a worker gets in pension benefits, according to a study completed by researchers commissioned by the Connecticut General Assembly. New York and California passed anti-spiking legislation in 2012.

Taking steps to prevent employees from getting increased pension benefits by working overtime could save Pennsylvania $456 million between 2019 and 2023, according to an analysis of the governor’s pension reform plan that was completed by the accounting firm of Milliman Inc.

The governor’s plan recommends that pension payments be calculated based on the final five years of earnings. Corbett’s office also has proposed that the state adopt anti-spiking measures that would limit the amount of overtime that would count towards an employee’s pension.

Records show that 295 state police troopers were paid more than $100,000 last year.  Some of that overtime is almost certainly due to the imbalance between the number of troopers who have been retiring, compared with the number hired to replace them according to the union that represents state police troopers. When the governor announced funding for three new state police cadet classes, the department said it was operating with 4,191 troopers, 480 short of its approved complement.

But only three troopers – Robert Buckley, Van Keys and Timothy Flickering – were paid more than $150,000 in 2012, according to government databases on the state’s open records website: pennwatch.pa.gov.

Buckley was paid $182,972, though his base pay was $87,045.

Acting Attorney General Linda Kelly was paid $151,367 last year. Col. Frank Noonan, the head of the state police, was paid $142,314.

For comparison, there were 37 state corrections officers who were paid more than $100,000 in 2012, including one guard who was paid $135,436, even though his base salary was only $63,218.

In the Department of Public Welfare, 14 registered nurses were paid more than $100,000 in 2012. The highest paid RN was paid $147,828, even though the nurse’s base salary was $71,939.

Stephen Herzenberg of the Keystone Research Center, an economist who has been critical of the governor’s pension reform measures, said that individual cases do not necessarily justify wholesale changes that reduce pension benefits for all workers.

 “If there is documented evidence of real abuses that led to outsized pensions, we should look at it,” Herzenberg said.

The solution may not require changing the pension rules for all workers, he said. If the situation is that a department is short-staffed so workers are being told to work overtime, then it makes no sense to deprive workers of that compensation from their pension calculation, he said.

In Pennsylvania, government retirees do not get regular cost-of-living adjustments, so any move to diminish benefits would require close scrutiny, he said. “Computing benefits over a longer period of time is just a way of lowering benefits,” Herzenberg said.

A state police spokesman said that in many cases, troopers with special training will have greater opportunity to pick up overtime.

“Specialized positions within the department inherently have more overtime associated with the positions. An example of this can be our SERT (Special Emergency Response Team), our Forensic Services Unit members and K-9 handlers, to name a few. This is because these positions are of an ‘on-call’ nature in addition to the regular shifts worked,” said state police spokesman Adam Reed.

Even troopers who primarily serve on patrol duty will have opportunities to pick up overtime for speed enforcement, DUI checkpoints or to monitor construction zones.