OUR OPINION: Tupelo’s overtime focus a success story

Often political candidates say government should be run like a business. It sounds good, but the reality isn’t always that simple, given the services government is expected to provide and its relative lack of flexibility when compared with businesses.

From the business perspective, government has something businesses will never have – the ability to coerce revenue.

Nevertheless, there are certainly lessons government can learn from business, from a customer-service orientation to cost efficiencies. One thing all businesses know is that holding expenses in line requires a deliberate focus. What gets measured gets done. A very businesslike approach of this kind by Tupelo city government has yielded impressive results.

The city had let overtime pay flow rather freely over a period of years. The fire department even had overtime built in to its scheduling.

It wasn’t a big issue during flush times, but as Daily Journal reporter Robbie Ward’s story in Sunday’s paper detailed, when the recession hit and the city faced a revenue crunch, expense savings of any kind took on a new and higher level of importance.

Then-Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and Chief Financial Officer Lynn Norris asked department heads to come up with plans for reducing overtime, which in 2009 had grown to $840,598. Department heads responded creatively, even to the point of Fire Chief Thomas Walker completely changing firefighters’ work schedules.

The results were quick and dramatic. By 2012, overtime for the city had dropped nearly half a million dollars to $342,317. The fire department had virtually eliminated its significant contribution to the total.

Overall, according to the Daily Journal’s analysis, the average overtime in the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 was 41.4 percent lower than the average for the preceding seven years.

We’re not talking about pocket change. Total overtime paid to city employees between 2003 and 2013 was $6.1 million. Cutting back by several hundred thousand dollars a year frees up money for vital city services.

No one begrudges employees getting the pay they are legally and morally entitled to when they work more than 40 hours a week. And clearly there are circumstances that require it.

But overtime should not be an income expectation, and it should monitored closely and controlled. Tupelo, which didn’t have a handle on overtime a few years ago, is doing that now. It found an area where expenses could be cut without significantly affecting services and it made that a focus. The city is now in a stronger financial position because of it.