The City Comptroller’s Office says there are not enough controls in Buffalo Fire Headquarters – where suspended administrative assistant Jill M. Parisi worked – to ensure that the payroll of civilian employees assigned there is accurate.
“It’s ripe for abuse,” said Patrick J. Curry, executive assistant to Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder. “A lack of internal controls makes it vulnerable.”
Curry’s comments were based on a recently completed audit that found Fire Headquarters civilian employees working overtime at time and a half on days when they had already been credited with a full sick day; and sometimes working from home at times on overtime even though the department has no formal work-at-home policy.
The audit also found that Fire Headquarters civilian employees don’t properly document their overtime or obtain proper overtime preapprovals.
While firefighters use standard overtime request forms signed by supervisors, the five-member civilian staff at Fire Headquarters does things differently, the audit found. Their overtime hours are handwritten on a piece of paper that doesn’t specify why the overtime is needed, and is approved with a signature stamp of the fire commissioner or a deputy commissioner, not an actual signature.
“A signature stamp is not considered approval, as it is unknown who possessed the stamp,” Curry said.
The audit was released within a week of Parisi, the senior administrative assistant in Fire Headquarters, being accused of improperly changing her Social Security deductions to benefit herself. She denied the accusation but has been suspended without pay.
While the audit highlights some of Parisi’s overtime and other work habits, the review was not in response to her recent suspension. The Comptroller’s Office said the audit began in October, at the request of Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., who this week said he requested the review in September as part of a larger ongoing effort to modernize the department, not because of any particular incident or concern.
Having received a draft of the audit report earlier this month, Whitfield this week told the Common Council that changes already were being made. He said that signature stamps are no longer used and that employees are no longer working from home.
“That process seems to have gotten out of control, and we are not allowing it anymore,” Whitfield said of employees working from home.
Also, he said, employees will no longer be allowed to work overtime on days when they take the full day off sick.
“That practice has ended,” he said. Other changes, he said, also will be made as the audit review continues.
The audit also found that:
• Whenever the senior administrative assistant in headquarters was off, a lower-paid clerical employee was paid acting time at a higher rate, even when the work of the higher-paid employee wasn’t being done.
• There were instances of employees being paid more overtime than records indicate they worked, and of employees receiving more personal time off than what they were entitled to.
The audit also found that, overall, the department’s 38 civilian employees – working in eight different units, including dispatch and the fire repair shop, as well as headquarters – each work, on average, about eight weeks of overtime annually, while firefighters work, on average, about six weeks of overtime.
“Civilian manpower needs are relatively consistent and predictable. Therefore, with proper scheduling and staffing levels, the amount of OT should be minimal and significantly less than that of emergency responders,” the audit concluded.
The audit focused primarily on the five civilian staff members working out of Fire Headquarters, whose paychecks increased by as much as 50 percent or more with overtime in recent years.
Among the five is Parisi, 49, who joined the Fire Department staff about 20 years ago, and who has an annual base pay of $59,926. She already earned $66,800 in the first 7½ months of the current fiscal year, which runs through the end of June. In addition to $38,614 in regular pay, she received $25,935 in overtime.
Parisi took off sick 12½ days from July 20 to Aug. 30, yet worked a total of 23 hours of overtime on six of those dates, the Comptroller’s Office found.
Parisi’s $82,732 in earnings last year included $25,986 in overtime, payroll records show.
Another top administrative employee, Cheryl A. Kane, the fire records and supplies supervisor, with the same base pay as Parisi, earned $90,149 last year, including $33,114 in overtime. Kane’s $61,453 pay so far this year includes $20,895 in overtime, city payroll records show.
Kane did not take any sick days during the period reviewed, but did take five vacation days. She worked two hours of overtime on one of those days, the records show.
The records also show that whenever Parisi or Kane were not at work, lower-level clerks were paid acting time. As a result, a senior account clerk-typist, Pamela A. Zawistowski, for example, with a $40,225 annual salary, already earned $40,231 during the first eight months of this year when regular time, acting time and overtime were included.
Neither Zawistowski nor Kane returned calls seeking comment. Parisi also declined further comment.
The audit identified longtime practices that will now be eliminated or changed, the commissioner said.
“A lot of things in the audit, the signature stamps, have been used a very long time,” Whitfield said. “It’s one of the reasons we requested the audit. We are looking at these things to create efficiencies.”
Whitfield added, however, that a lot is asked of the civilian staff at headquarters, which is one reason for the overtime.
“Our staff works nonstop through the course of a shift. There is no downtime. We have five persons to support 700,” he said, referring to the Fire Department’s overall payroll.
Since the audit was released and Parisi was suspended, employees from other city departments are helping with fire payroll, reducing overtime, Whitfield said.
He added that the larger comparison of average overtime hours of the department’s 38 civilian employees versus average overtime hours of the 500 to 600 firefighters is not fair, given that overall civilian overtime is just a fraction of overall firefighter overtime. Still, Whitfield said, he’s working on long-term technological changes to make Fire Headquarters and the entire department more efficient.