Tropical storm could test Malloy’s goal to cut overtime spending

Preparation for and cleanup after Tropical Storm Irene is likely to drive up state employee overtime pay–particularly in transportation, emergency management and public safety agencies–but Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget director said Monday that the goal of spending less than last year’s $300 million overtime allocation across all state government is still achievable.

“I’m sure it’s going to put a wrinkle in it,” Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes said, adding that key agencies anticipate a certain number of emergency events–such as severe snowfall or a tropical storm–in developing their budgets. “That’s what overtime is for.”

There was no immediate estimate from the administration Monday for overtime costs connected with the storm and its cleanup, which will continue for several more weeks.

But Barnes acknowledged that Irene, which dropped more than 8 inches of rain and featured peak wind gusts close to 60 mph, placed its initial overtime burdens on state police and emergency management crews, the Department of Transportation, and some staff within the new Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

And as the cleanup from the storm continues over the coming days, much of that overtime demand could focus particularly on transportation.

“It really remains to be seen what we’re going to find as we’re clearing blocked roads” and as flood waters recede, Barnes said. If significant emergency repairs are needed, “it could be a challenge for the DOT because we still have the entire snow season before us.”

“I think all-in-all we came through it on an infrastructure basis… in pretty good shape,” Malloy said Monday during a mid-day briefing at the state armory in Hartford. The governor particularly praised the DOT for effectively securing transportation project construction sites prior to the storm, adding that while Irene may add some time to these project schedules, it did no lasting damage to the sites.

DOT Commissioner James P. Redeker said the department had just begun to assess Connecticut’s transportation infrastructure Monday as most road obstructions had been cleared and some flood waters receded. Three areas were identified were prolonged detours would be needed to allow for repairs:

  • Route 72 in Bristol near the Plymouth town line.
  • Route 154 in Old Saybrook.
  • And sections of the sea wall in Milford near portions of Route 162.

Redeker added that shoreline routes, highways and bridges emerged with relatively little damage from the storm, but the department still has other inland structures to check after flood waters subside. “We’ve got a number of bridges that are still inundated,” he said.

Connecticut has one of the oldest highway and bridge networks in the nation. According to DOT data, the number of structurally deficient bridges is at its highest level since 1993.

Irene also could pose some overtime challenges this week for agencies unrelated to public safety, though not as severe.

Barnes said most departments were facing worker absentee rates between 10 and 15 percent on Monday. And though that number is expected to drop quickly this week as clean-up work progresses, in the meantime it could force some staffers to work extra hours to cover those who couldn’t get to their jobs.

Malloy warned all department heads last week that their overtime expenses would be closely monitored this fiscal year as the administration tries to keep the $20.14 billion overall budget in balance.

Seven departments out of more than 60 departments, agencies and offices accounted for more than $220 million of last year’s overtime spending, with the Department of Correction topping the list at more than $70 million.

The governor said all departments would be notified whenever their overtime spending is on pace to exceed 5 percent of regular salary accounts, and would be required to justify that ratio to his budget office.