ATLANTIC CITY - The city has spent nearly $17 million in overtime payments in less than five years, a sum that results from years of poor oversight and mismanagement.

Take Donna Gaskill, who oversees the city's 911 dispatchers. She has ranked within the top five city overtime users in all but one of the past five years. Last year alone, she added $35,113 to her $68,955 salary and approved large amounts of hours to her subordinates.

Or Akbar M. Salaam, who supervises building maintenance at the new All Wars Memorial Building. He earns a salary of $35,212, but this year he has racked up $15,532 in overtime, as of Sept. 14. That's an addition of nearly half of his annual salary in less than a year. He is on pace to make about $22,000 in overtime alone, or 62 percent of his base salary.

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Large overtime payments such as these have managed to cost the city an average of $3.8 million per year from 2005 to 2008, including $4.8 million in 2007 alone - altogether, $16.98 million in overtime since 2005.

But the city's financial crisis appears to have finally spurred some city action. Mayor Lorenzo Langford says he has made overtime cuts a priority this year and, according to city data, has made some significant strides.

The city has paid $1.7 million in overtime, as of Sept. 14. Those numbers suggest a projected drop of 28 percent by the end of the year compared with 2008, when the city paid out $3.4 million in overtime.

"It has absolutely been a problem," Langford told The Press of Atlantic City in a recent interview. "I can assure you this: The Langford administration's overtime will be a lot better (compared with previous years) by the end of this year."

Most city employees get time-and-a-half for every hour worked over their typical shift, time-and-a-half for a sixth work day and double their normal rate when working a seventh day in a week.

City Council also has made efforts to tighten overtime shifts, including cutting $400,000 in funding to the Police Department, which has always accumulated the biggest overtime expenses.

The department accounted for 64 percent of the city's overtime costs in 2008, spending $2.2 million. The department also was the biggest contributor to the highest overtime total in recent years, when costs reached $2.9 million in 2007.

Police Chief John J. Mooney defended his department's history of high costs, attributing most to a staff shortage after a rush of retirements in late 2006.

"In December of 2006, we lost 58 employees in one day," Mooney said. "Clearly it took us a while to start rebuilding at that point. We were down to only 275 employees actually reporting for duty."

The top overtime earners in Mooney's department are generally the same patrol officers, including retired Officer Dennis Munoz, who in 2007 racked up a city-high $49,926 in overtime, and Franco Sydnor, who logged 888.5 hours in one year.

Mooney dismissed questions about the officers, insisting the payments were going to young and "dedicated employees who volunteer for a lot of overtime shifts."

However, Mooney was quick to pounce on the Langford administration's handling of a budget officer that was recently detailed to City Hall's Finance Department.

Duane Carrington was moved May 5 and soon collected 108 hours in overtime, or $5,097, in 10 weeks. Mooney soon learned Carrington's extra hours were being charged to the Police Department, which had budgeted only $10,000 in civilian overtime for the entire year.

"At this point, I cannot schedule any civilian clerical personnel on busy weekends or holidays for the remainder of the year," Mooney wrote in a memo to a city budget officer in July.

Carrington has since been formally moved to the Finance Department.

Other public-safety-related divisions also rank high among the city's overtime costs. In the communications department, Gaskill has ranked within the top five overtime earners in all but one of the past five years. As of Sept. 14, Gaskill has earned $123,750 in extra pay since 2005.

Why does she accumulate so much additional work and money? Her contract enables her to stretch her hours.

For example, if Gaskill receives a call after-hours from one of her employees, that call counts as one hour of overtime, regardless of the length of the call.

"That's a big reason why they're out of control," Tom Foley, chief of emergency services, said of the section's costs. "We can try to cut back the overtime, but a lot of these (contracts) need to be renegotiated."

Gaskill also has allowed large amounts of overtime among her subordinates. Myrna Lew, a supervisor in her department, made $107,476 in overtime pay from 2005 to Sept. 14, all with an annual base salary that stayed at about $60,000.

Foley said the communications division is also overworked and understaffed. He said the mayor plans to hire an additional six dispatchers by the start of next year. However, that could prove difficult if the government-wide hiring freeze remains in effect.

Gaskill did not return a request to be interviewed.

Langford also specifically mentioned Gaskill when discussing the city's history of hefty overtime payments. Gaskill was a longtime ally of former Mayor Bob Levy, a Langford rival.

But when it comes to considerable overtime pay to Langford allies, the mayor defends those costs.

The new All Wars Memorial Building, for example, opened last spring and has quickly evolved into a cash cow - not necessarily in revenue for the city, but for the few workers who oversee events there. Langford supporter Akbar M. Salaam supervises the crew and has become the city's second leading overtime earner in 2009.

"We spend the money and maximize the use of the building," Langford said. "I'm not trying to diminish the (importance of) overtime costs, but you have to look at the positives of the building, too."

Salaam appeared angered by questions about his overtime costs.

"We have 300 events there," Salaam said. "You're going to have overtime."

Asked why more effort isn't taken to alter work shifts with the building's event schedule, Salaam said, "We don't schedule (the events). We do what needs to be done."

Langford said there has been some effort to "stagger shifts," but sometimes it doesn't work. Overall, he is confident about the direction the city is going.

"Ultimately, it's a work in progress," he said. "But we're getting there."

E-mail Michael Clark:

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