The COVID-19 pandemic pushed overtime costs for Grand Forks’ city government to a five-year high.

City workers clocked about $1.43 million worth of overtime in 2020. That figure is about $200,000 higher than previous overtime totals in recent memory. The bulk of the increase comes from Grand Forks Public Health, where staff worked long hours and adapted their professional responsibilities to account for the virus, incurring about $321,000 worth of overtime in the process – nearly five times the amount of overtime they worked in the previous four years combined.

That spike in payroll is an exception more than a rule for the health department, but other Grand Forks city departments have routinely clocked hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of overtime each year, regardless of epidemiological circumstances. Staff at the city’s public works department have accrued between $433,000 and $616,000 worth of overtime between 2016 and 2020, and Grand Forks police have logged between $211,000 and $418,000 in overtime in that same span, according to documents supplied to the Herald. But those departments' overtime costs have been trending in opposite directions for years: public works staff have been working increasingly large amounts of overtime as the city expands, and police have been working increasingly smaller amounts of overtime as they add more officers.

Public works staff are responsible for clearing snow off city streets in the winter and working weekends at the city landfill during annual yard waste collection drives in warmer months. Both of those can quickly accrue overtime, according to LeahRae Amundson, the city’s public works operations director, and the gradual southward growth of the city itself can do the same.

“We're addressing city growth and also demand for services and those kind of things,” Amundson said.

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And at the police department, staff most often clock overtime when they’re called to work on a “special operations group” such as a SWAT team, when they’re called in to work to ensure that the city meets its per-shift officer minimums, or when they’re called into court. Regardless of the reason, police officers in Grand Forks earn at least two hours' worth of overtime if they’re called to work outside of their normal shift, regardless of how long they ultimately work. They can also accept that pay as vacation time, if they choose, but Lt. Derik Zimmel, a department spokesman, said officers mostly choose the money over the vacation.

A long-term public safety plan enacted by former Mayor Mike Brown added a handful of new police officers to the department each year for the past few, and overtime expenses have fallen concurrently. More officers presumably means less overtime because the department is less likely to need to bring someone in to meet shift minimums, but that could be offset at least somewhat because more cops also means more “enforcement activities,” which can mean more time in court, according to Zimmel.

“So it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword,” he said.

There’s also “been an awareness” of departmental overtime over the past few years, Zimmel said.

“I don’t know that it’s a concerted push, ‘we need to knock this overtime down,’ et cetera,” he said. “But I think it’s an awareness of we have a budget, we need to stay within the constraints of that budget, we need to find ways to provide the same or greater level of service to the community while mitigating cost to the city.”

So from where does the money for all that above-and-beyond work come? Each city department has a set budget for overtime, but several routinely blow past it each year: the police department’s overtime budget has stayed at $127,000 since at least 2016, for instance, but officers have worked no less than $211,000 worth of overtime in that span.

City finance administrators and department staff fill in the gap between those figures with money from elsewhere in the department, money the city saves between an ex-employee’s last day and their replacement’s first, and, in the police department’s case, from state or federal grants for drunk driving enforcement, underage drinking prevention, and other initiatives, according to Maureen Storstad, the city’s finance director.

In 2020, grants accounted for about half of the gap between GFPD’s initial overtime budget and what it actually spent, according to documents supplied to the Herald. Training reimbursements, money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and interdepartmental transfers accounted for the rest.

“We’re always trying to keep budgets down, and a lot of that, they’re going to manage within their existing budget,” Storstad said. “We want to always keep property taxes down.”