Bluffton residents could be on the hook for a $337K police overtime bill. Here’s why

A man walks among the debris on a street in Bluffton after Hurricane Matthew hit.
A man walks among the debris on a street in Bluffton after Hurricane Matthew hit. Staff photo

When Hurricane Matthew pounded the shores of South Carolina last year, the Town of Bluffton saw the least amount of estimated structural damage of any incorporated area in Beaufort County.

Yet Bluffton stayed under emergency conditions for the longest amount of time, causing its police department to accrue a disproportionately high overtime bill compared to other police agencies in the county, including the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees emergency operations for the entire county, an investigation by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette found.

This is because Bluffton pays its police officers overtime for 24 hours a day during emergencies, such as hurricanes, whether or not those officers are actively working — or watching TV or sleeping — during that time. Officers were scheduled to work 12-hour shifts, although some worked 14 to 16 hours at a time.

Bluffton’s overtime policy does not appear to meet federal guidelines on emergency overtime reimbursement, which means the town of fewer than 19,000 taxpayers may be stuck footing the police department’s entire $337,008 overtime bill for Hurricane Matthew. The tab represents more than half of the overtime paid to the Sheriff’s Office — the largest law enforcement agency in the county — during the October storm, and more than 10 percent of the Bluffton Police Department’s total salaries for all of last year, records show.

What’s more, the town’s mayor and manager say they don’t see anything wrong with this.

“Every town has different needs, and we did what we needed to do for Bluffton,” said town manager Marc Orlando.

Orlando said he knew Bluffton’s overtime town policy diverged from Federal Emergency Management Administration standards and thereby risked partially forgoing FEMA reimbursement. But he said the town’s police officers and other personnel needed to spend all eight days last October under emergency conditions, pointing out, among other things, that Hilton Head’s evacuation and re-entry routes flow through Bluffton.

“Marc Orlando takes care of his people,” said Bluffton Police Chief Joseph Manning, who also defended the amount of overtime in the Town of Bluffton.

Bluffton’s Town Council voted to approve of the overtime policy, and Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka signed the policy on May 15, 2014. She deferred to Orlando, saying that he was “in charge.”

“Do we (Town Council) support what Marc did during Hurricane Matthew? One hundred percent,” said Sulka, who received public praise for her high visibility in the town and frequent updates to residents during the storm.

In contrast, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said his department followed the FEMA guidelines during Hurricane Matthew of paying overtime only for hours worked beyond regular shifts.

“Those (FEMA guidelines) are the appropriate guidelines,” Tanner said. “We’re stewards of the taxpayers’ money. When it comes to paying your staff, you want to pay appropriately.”

Hurricane Matthew, which roared through Beaufort County during the early hours of Oct. 8, was the first storm since 1989 that required a full mandatory evacuation for county residents. And research from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration points to a future with stronger and more frequent hurricanes.

Nationally, the federal government has been saddled over the past two decades with hurricane recoveries costing billions of dollars — at a rate that might not be sustainable should predictions of future storms prove true, some experts say.

As such, local emergency management departments and governments could find themselves responsible for ever-increasing hurricane costs, which could make the Town of Bluffton’s handling of overtime during Hurricane Matthew a cause for concern.

Big overtime tab

The issue at hand is not whether law enforcement officers deserve the overtime payment for the sacrifices they make to keep the community safe during natural disasters.

The issue is how local governments manage and handle these natural disasters and whether they are acting as responsible stewards of local and federal tax dollars in the meantime.

Nearly all 50 employees of the Bluffton Police Department were paid 195 hours of overtime for the eight days the town’s emergency protocol was activated. This is the highest number of individual hours paid by any police department in the county for that time.

This isn’t the first time the Bluffton Police Department has been scrutinized on money matters.

Former Police Chief Joey Reynolds had been paid nearly $80,000 by town taxpayers for his collective months of travel throughout the U.S. and world in connection with his role with a nonprofit police organization, the newspapers revealed in June. Reynolds also received a full cash payout of over $40,000 after he retired at the end of June for personal-time-off hours that could have been used for his travel, according to Bluffton records.

During Matthew, Reynolds received $16,218 in overtime pay — the single-largest overtime payout for any law enforcement officer in the county during that storm, according to records provided to the Packet and Gazette under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

In comparison, supervisors at the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, which is in charge of emergency operations countywide, were compensated for 28 to 55 overtime hours each during Matthew, records show. The exception to this was Tanner, who was recorded as working 112 overtime hours, but was not paid for it because of his position as an elected official.

The difference between estimated structural damage from Matthew in Bluffton compared with the unincorporated parts of Beaufort County was stark. While Bluffton sustained about $1.3 million in projected structural damage — the lowest amount among Beaufort County’s incorporated municipalities — the county’s unincorporated areas sustained an estimated $25 million in structural damage, according to information provided by the county to FEMA for reimbursement.

The county’s figures, however, do not include the Town of Hilton Head, which is also under the Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction and sustained an estimated $253 million in structural damage, according to Shawn Colin, the town’s deputy director of community development. Colin said the $253 million figure was the highest possible estimate, adding that the final figure might end up being less.

Although structural damage does not represent Matthew’s full destruction, it’s a consistent measure by which to compare damage in different parts of the county.

Locally, Bluffton was not the only incorporated municipality in Beaufort County that did not appear to meet FEMA guidelines during Hurricane Matthew. Like Bluffton, Beaufort city officers also received a 24-hour overtime pay rate, though Beaufort operated under emergency conditions for almost six days compared with eight for Bluffton.

Beaufort also had far more estimated structural damage — $6.3 million — compared to Bluffton, according to county figures.

The local taxpayer bill for overtime claimed by the Bluffton Police Department during the hurricane was $337,008 compared with $231,410 for Beaufort police, according to information provided to the Packet and Gazette through open-records requests.

It’s not uncommon for cities to evaluate whether taxpayer money is fairly spent on overtime. In Detroit, for instance, the city’s police department recently conducted an internal affairs investigation into overtime pay.

And in New Orleans — a city hit hard by hurricanes — it was reported that several employees received more than $10,000 for emergency overtime pay following Hurricane Isaac in 2012. After the report, city leaders debated capping overtime pay for public officials.

Different places, different policies

The question is this: Why did Bluffton’s police department pay their officers so much overtime during Hurricane Matthew when the town’s estimated structural damage was the lowest among the county’s incorporated municipalities?

For one, each municipality and the Sheriff’s Office operated under different timelines.

Here’s the state’s timetable: Then-Gov. Nikki Haley declared a state of emergency on Oct. 4 (Tuesday). She lifted the evacuation order for Beaufort County on Oct. 9 (Sunday).

Now, compare that to the timelines from the Sheriff’s Office and municipalities:

The Sheriff’s Office began paying officers overtime on the morning of Oct. 5 (Wednesday), which lasted over six days until the evening of Oct. 11 (Tuesday).

Beaufort operated under emergency conditions from Oct. 5 (Wednesday) until Oct. 10 (Monday).

The Town of Port Royal operated under emergency conditions for nearly as long as Bluffton, from Oct. 4 (Tuesday) to Oct. 11 (the next Tuesday).

Bluffton began operating under emergency conditions on Oct. 4 (Tuesday) at 3 p.m., after the governor declared a state of emergency. Bluffton remained operating under emergency conditions until Oct. 12 (Wednesday) at 6 p.m. Orlando said the town was under emergency management for a full eight days not only because it was part of an evacuation route to Hilton Head, but also because an emergency shelter at Bluffton High School was set up in part for Hilton Head residents who could not immediately return to the island. Both Bluffton High School and Battery Creek High School in Beaufort remained open as shelters until Oct. 14, about a week after Matthew hit.

Despite the fact that Port Royal and Bluffton ran on similar timetables, the difference in the number of overtime hours working between the two towns is striking: Port Royal police officers each worked an average of 59.6 overtime hours. All but four Bluffton police personnel each clocked in 195 hours of overtime.

How is such a difference possible?

The answer: Two very different town policies.

When it comes to overtime pay in emergency situations, Bluffton and Beaufort had similar town policies during Matthew: No matter the hours officers worked or the hours they slept, they were paid 24 hours a day in overtime.

The Sheriff’s Office and Port Royal had a different approach. In Port Royal, overtime hours were paid to nonexempt employees who worked over 86 hours a week, while exempt employees were paid their standard rate for time worked beyond 86 hours, according to Port Royal’s town policy. In the Sheriff’s Office, overtime hours were paid for whatever employees worked above and beyond their regularly scheduled 12-hour shifts, said Tanner.

When Tropical Storm Irma hit Beaufort County on Sept. 11, less than a year after Matthew, the county’s coastal areas experienced significant storm surge and damage.

The City of Beaufort adopted an overtime policy during Irma specifically to follow FEMA’s guidelines, said city manager Bill Prokop.

Bluffton paid personnel straight time rather than overtime when they were on call during Irma, according to Orlando. The town tempered its overtime policy “due to the lessened severity of the storm,” Orlando said.

“I will continue to re-examine how emergency overtime is structured and assessed and will continue to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our preparations and responsiveness,” Orlando said in an email to the newspapers.

Getting dollars from D.C.

Obtaining federal reimbursement for recovery costs related to Matthew overtime pay hasn’t been easy.

Beaufort County did not receive its first check from FEMA until August, a full 10 months after the hurricane, and the reimbursement amount was only $35,000. On Sept. 12, the county received a second check from FEMA for $9.2 million.

Bluffton is applying for FEMA reimbursement on its own for police overtime costs. But the town also submits damage-assessment paperwork through the county, which works with a FEMA representative to verify all documents.

County documents show about $40 million has been spent on Matthew cleanup efforts, with the expectation that FEMA will reimburse 75 percent of that, the Packet and Gazette previously reported.

Further, although the county has received funds from FEMA for some Matthew-related expenses, such as hauling away trees, thus far neither the incorporated municipalities nor the Sheriff’s Office has received approval from FEMA for reimbursement of overtime hours, according to FEMA representative Danon Lucas. And FEMA’s rigidity may mean bad news for Bluffton and Beaufort.

Here’s why: For a town to be awarded federal assistance, that town’s overtime policy needs to comply with federal guidelines, which didn’t appear to be the case for Bluffton and Beaufort during Matthew.

Other places in the U.S. have been denied federal reimbursement for noncompliance. Take Lubbock, Texas, for instance. In 2007, FEMA denied the city $71,161 in reimbursement for overtime pay for officials who worked during Hurricane Katrina. Also in 2007, FEMA denied reimbursement requests for Coral Gables, Fla., stating, “FEMA denied the city’s request because the policy authorized overtime at the discretion of the city manager.”

But, if local government policies adhere to FEMA guidelines, the federal agency will provide reimbursement, lessening the load on local taxpayers. In 1989, for example, after Hurricane Hugo devastated parts of the Lowcountry, FEMA granted South Carolina $2.7 million to help with police overtime costs and other expenses by law enforcement agencies. Adjusted for inflation, that comes out to the equivalent of more than $5.2 million in today’s dollars.

Right now, Beaufort County is actively working with FEMA to sort out reimbursement, said Josh Gruber, deputy county administrator. But one year after Matthew wreaked havoc on the county, whether FEMA will pick up the tab for overtime pay in Bluffton remains to be seen.

Kasia Kovacs: 843-706-8139, @kasiakovacs

By the numbers comparison

Beaufort County’s administration provided estimated costs of structural damage, which were compiled after evaluation post-Matthew. Those figures were then sent to the Federal Emergency Management Administration in the county’s request for emergency reimbursement.

Here’s a breakdown of those costs:

▪ Hilton Head Island, which is under the jurisdiction of the county’s Sheriff’s Office, sustained estimated structural damages of $253 million — a high projection, according to the town’s deputy director of community development.

▪ Beaufort County (not counting Hilton Head), which is under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office: $24,960,702

▪ The City of Beaufort, under the jurisdiction of its city police department: $6,265,726

▪ Port Royal, under jurisdiction of its town police department: $1,976,771

▪ Bluffton, under the jurisdiction of its town police department: $1,341,550

Compare that to how many overtime hours were claimed by local police departments:

▪ In Bluffton, almost all officers were paid for 195 hours of overtime work. They were paid 24 hours a day, eight days total, whether they were working or had downtime.

▪ In Beaufort, almost all officers clocked in 136 hours of overtime over almost six days. Like Bluffton, they were paid overtime for 24-hour shifts, regardless of working hours versus downtime hours.

▪ In Port Royal, overtime work for officers varied from 32 to 84.3 hours, averaging 59.6 hours, over eight days.

▪ In the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office — which was not only in charge of emergency operations countywide but also covered areas of the county outside incorporated municipalities — supervisors were paid for overtime work ranging from 28.5 to 55 hours, over six days.

And here’s one final breakdown, listing how much officers were paid for their work during Hurricane Matthew:

▪ In Bluffton, overtime wages ranged from $468 to $16,216. In total, overtime wages for 50 personnel in Bluffton’ police department added up to $337,008. That’s about 10 percent of Bluffton’s budget allocated to police salaries in 2016.

▪ In the Sheriff’s Office, deputies on the command staff worked an average of 40.6 overtime hours; they were paid from $2,155 to $5,478 for their overtime hours. In all, overtime pay for command staff added up to $108,666. Total overtime paid for 269 Sheriff’s Office employees who worked during the hurricane was about $635,000.

▪ In the City of Beaufort, compensation ranged from $190 to $6,998. In total, overtime wages for 48 personnel in Beaufort’s police department totaled $231,410. That’s about 8.5 percent of the budget allocated by Beaufort for police salaries in 2016.

▪ In Port Royal, officers were paid a range of $997 to $3,230 for their overtime work. Twenty-two Port Royal personnel were paid $40,848 in total.

Tropical Storm Irma

The specific figures for hours worked during Tropical Storm Irma had not been calculated by every police department by publication of this story. However, here are the numbers that were available, according to officials in those towns: In Bluffton, police personnel worked an estimated 2,124 hours over about five days. In Port Royal, police department employees worked a total of 504.1 hours.

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