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Editorial: Agency's excessive use of overtime is poor handling of taxpayer money

Oct. 10, 2012 @ 11:47 PM

Most people probably would agree that it's important for West Virginia to have a call center to handle reports of a variety of emergencies so that appropriate state agencies can step into action.

But most of the state's taxpayers probably wouldn't endorse managing this call center in such a way that more than a half million dollars was spent unnecessarily over the past six years. According to a report by the Legislative Auditor's office, that is what has happened.

The emergency communications center operated by the state's Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management employs a toll-free number that people can call to report such events as mine disasters, environmental spills, suspected arsons, school safety concerns and whistleblower tips. That's a crucial around-the-clock function in deploying the proper resources in cases of emergency.

However, since 2006 when the center was established, the Homeland Security division has spent $900,478 in overtime pay to about 20 homeland security workers to keep the call center operating around the clock, Jill Mooney, a research analyst with the Legislative Auditor's office, told state lawmakers on Tuesday.

The reason, she said, is that Homeland Security has failed to fill vacant part-time jobs at the call center. That means Homeland Security employees who aren't even assigned to the call center have had to fill shifts at the overtime rate of $35 an hour. Last year, the impact of that was 14 Homeland Security employees making $3,000 or more in overtime, including one worker who pulled in $18,000 more than his usual salary of $34,000.

Overall, since 2006, that practice has caused the Homeland Security division to spend about $580,000 more to pay its employees overtime than what it would have had to pay if the vacancies were filled, the report said.

Homeland Security officials defend the situation by saying they have had difficulty finding qualified people who are willing to work the job, either because of the wage level, the hours or the nature of the work.

That begs another question: Just how aggressively has it tried?

Homeland Security officials told auditors that the agency has tried on "numerous occasions" to fill the vacancies, Mooney said. But Division of Personnel records show that Homeland Security advertised the vacancies only three times, two in 2008 and once in 2011. Homeland Security didn't provide evidence of any other attempts.

The agency's website isn't much help either. The "employment opportunities" link does not work, and a search on the site for "employment opportunities" yields a page that is "under construction" and lists no job openings.

A spokesman for Homeland Security told lawmakers that the agency might consider converting the four part-time positions to two full-time jobs to increase the odds of filling them, which would be a step in the right direction. Another step would a much more aggressive effort to fill the positions. Clearly, the current situation is an inefficient use of taxpayer money and should be stopped.

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