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Counties across the metro are struggling with millions of dollars in soaring overtime costs as waves of officers in their sheriff’s departments either retire or quit jobs that are often proving difficult to fill.

Staffing shortages have become so acute in some areas that even responding to 911 calls requires overtime. And some county officers are filling staffing gaps so often they are earning hundreds of hours in overtime pay, records show.

After losing 94 employees in 2014, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek says he’s bracing to blow his office’s budget this year by at least $1.5 million.

In Ramsey County, commissioners tapped their contingency account last year to cover Sheriff Matt Bostrom’s overruns of $900,000 in temporary employee salaries and unbudgeted overtime.

And in Carver County, Sheriff Jim Olson blamed his rising overtime on an exodus of more than half his authorized force of licensed peace officers since 2011 to higher-paying agencies.

Carver Sheriff’s Sgt. Dewitt Meier says that’s what led him to work more than 1,000 hours a year in overtime from 2010 to 2014, earning him more overtime pay than any other deputy in the metro area.

“We’ve had a monstrous turnover, and there’s nobody to answer 911s. We don’t have people in the cars, as many as we should,” Meier said. “And so when my partners call and say, ‘I need somebody to work, will you work for me?’ … That’s when I go to work.”

Metro sheriffs say they have little choice but to use overtime when employees retire, get injured or call in sick.

“Some type of overtime in our line of work is necessary and is good policy and good practice,” Bostrom said.

Commissioners critical

The Star Tribune analyzed payroll expenditures from six metro counties. The analysis excludes payments to undercover officers, which are not public information.

Carver and Hennepin counties showed the biggest overtime increases, rising 122 and 74 percent, respectively. Sheriff, transportation and public works departments drove much of the increases. The smallest increase was 13 percent, in Dakota.

Officials cited a variety of factors for the rising overtime in the sheriffs’ offices, including pension changes that prompted early retirements, competition for qualified job candidates, an improving economy and the North Dakota oil boom.

Because of pension laws, the overtime effects will last for years for people like Meier, who runs Carver County’s investigations unit, property room and crime lab when he’s not filling in on patrol.

Meier earned $250,629 in overtime — roughly 34 percent of his $729,688 gross wages — from 2010 to 2014. The overtime will roll into the base of his retirement pay going forward, nearly doubling the payment he would have received if he had worked no overtime.

Excluding undercover officers, the Star Tribune found that overtime payments in Hennepin County nearly doubled from $2.3 million in 2010, when it accounted for 5 percent of the payroll, to more than $4.5 million in 2014, when it accounted for 9 percent.

The Hennepin County Board has criticized Stanek for his rising overtime bills and hired a consultant from California for $100,000 to analyze personnel spending, which accounts for about 80 percent of the sheriff’s budget. The analyst’s report is due in September.

“I think when the numbers begin to increase rapidly you have to worry about it, and that’s why we hired a national firm,” said Jan Callison, chair of the Hennepin County Board.

Stanek said he welcomes the review. He said his overtime last year was 6.5 percent of his overall budget, which unlike the newspaper’s analysis, included the cost of benefits, cars and other equipment. “Most agencies run 8 to 10 percent,” Stanek said.

Stanek said his agency’s overtime spiked in 2014 largely because of a change in rules designed to bolster funding for the police and fire pension system. The new rules would have penalized personnel who retired before age 55 if they had waited until the changes took effect last year. Stanek’s normal turnover of about 40 employees more than doubled in 2014.

The Public Employment Retirement Association (PERA) reported that statewide police and fire retirements more than doubled from 271 in 2013 to 583 in 2014.

Stanek said he’s hiring permanent staff at the request of the County Board but noted that he still must pay overtime while the recruits undergo training. Each deputy costs about $110,000 including salary, benefits and equipment, he said.

“I’m on track to come in over budget in 2015 because we have hired up to the number the County Board authorized,” Stanek said.

In Ramsey County, Bostrom also has enlisted a consultant to determine the best balance between using overtime and hiring more full-time employees. “We want to have an outside set of eyes look at this,” he said.

Bostrom blamed part of the overtime increase last year on early retirements related to the pension changes and on major investigations into the murders of Kelly Phillips and Officer Scott Patrick.

But he said it mostly had to do with a 40-week training regimen for new deputies. The program prepares them for any job in the department but also takes longer, which meant overtime and temporary pay had to fill the gap.

Sheriffs on the metro periphery say they haven’t seen many retirements prompted by the pension changes. But Olson said that might be exacerbating other problems in Carver County, where he says the main force driving deputies to leave is money. The pay policies for patrol officers in Carver County are less competitive, he said.

Recruiting has become even tougher with videos depicting abusive police tactics going viral on the Internet, he added.

Jason Kamerud, Olson’s chief deputy, said Carver County seeks volunteers to fill overtime shifts. But he said millennials expect a better work-life balance than baby boomers, who often end up volunteering. Even so, the agency has a rule against working more than 16 hours straight except for unusual scenarios.

Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart said his agency is understaffed and has difficulty getting volunteers to fill overtime slots. Twenty years ago, he said, about 40 percent of any given division would step forward; now it’s closer to 10 percent.

“Just a handful of people are latching on to the overtime,” Stuart said.

One of them is Shawn Young, an Anoka County detention deputy who earned $213,214 in overtime out of $499,988 in gross wages from 2010 to 2014. That’s about 43 percent of his wages — the highest the Star Tribune found. Young could not be reached for comment, but Stuart praised him.

“Clearly we have the need, and he has the time,” Stuart said. “If I can get 20 more of him I would be in a good place. He’s just a star performer.”

Volunteers like Young reduce the need to order people to work overtime, avoiding morale problems, Stuart said.

“We monitor him and anyone who is putting in long shifts or overtime very closely,” he added.

Washington County has remained at the bottom of metro-area sheriff agencies in the proportion of its payroll going to overtime from 2010 to 2014. Like the others, though, its overtime use is rising. Sheriff Bill Hutton said his office lost eight jobs in recessionary budget cuts, though he’s trying to restore them.

A Hennepin County review of the sheriff’s overtime payments did not find a pattern of “pension spiking,” or high use of overtime by employees nearing retirement. Most overtime goes to midcareer employees, said Mark Thompson, Hennepin’s assistant administrator for public safety. The Star Tribune’s analysis supports that — though it’s clear many employees will benefit from overtime pay after they retire.

A sheriff’s deputy who earned an average five-year salary of $77,000 a year, with 20 years on the job, would get $46,200 a year in retirement, according to PERA. The rare case of a similar deputy earning $146,000 a year with overtime would get $87,600 a year.

Anne Maag, 50, said PERA changes prompted her to retire early last year after working 26 years in Ramsey County’s detention and transport divisions, where she collected nearly $160,000 in overtime pay from 2010 to 2014. That’s about 30 percent of her $526,000 in gross wages.

Maag, who is single, said boosting her pension didn’t influence her overtime decisions. “The main factor in taking overtime was because I had to support myself,” she said.

Staff reporters Kevin Giles, Karen Zamora and Jessie Van Berkel contributed to this report.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035