By NEIL RIDDELL
A clampdown on unnecessary overtime for council workers is under way in some departments as it was revealed this week that the SIC picked up a bill of £2.4 million for out-of-hours wages in the last financial year.
The sum came to a relatively small 2.8 per cent proportion of the overall council wage bill of £86.7 million in 2008/9, but members of the audit and scrutiny committee and officials from the infrastructure department were in agreement that more can be done to trim overtime costs.
Attempts to tackle the spend are being viewed by council management as particularly pressing given the imposition of the £4 million-a-year single status settlement later this year will lead to an increase in the amount of money paid out to workers required to undertake out-of-hours labour as a knock-on after many basic hourly rates are increased.
Councillor Jonathan Wills said the overall overtime amount “doesn’t seem excessive” and, though it would be useful to get comparative figures on overtime in other local authorities, it appeared the perception of a culture of council workers being granted unnecessary overtime was not ultimately borne out by the figures. But there were particular areas of concern which he and others around the council chamber picked out.
For instance, the towage service spends £344,984 on maintaining four tugs, prompting Dr Wills to question whether that figure was “a wee bit high” and if offering a 24-hour service for 365 days a year is really necessary in light of vast changes in the level of oil industry traffic.
“It’s more than a wee bit high,” admitted executive director of infrastructure Gordon Greenhill, whose mammoth department accounts for £1.39 million of the overall overtime spend. “We’re in discussions with terminal partners to look at what service level the customer wants. We may be able to do our business in a different way.”
Department by department figures compiled in a council report make interesting reading, showing that over £200,000 is spent to boost the salaries of ferry workers on both the Yell and Whalsay routes to maintain evening and weekend sailing timetables, with another £69,184 on the Bressay-Lerwick route.
Maintaining school buildings accounted for nearly £300,000 of the expenditure, prompting councillor Allison Duncan to ask whether more of that essential maintenance work could be carried out during school holidays instead of at weekends in term-time.
Question marks were also raised as to why the Taing House care home in Lerwick cost the taxpayer some £44,665 in overtime, while the comparable Edward Thomason House accounted for only £3,310. Answers to this, and various other queries, are to be sought before the next committee meeting in six weeks.
Head of environment and building services Stephen Cooper said there had to be close scrutiny of overtime because of the danger that it becomes expected by the workforce and institutionalised within departments. “This is the time to take action,” he said.
Mr Cooper also pointed out that there was a danger in clamping down on work outside of Monday-Friday daytime hours because there would be a threshold below which new employees and perhaps new vehicles may have to be brought in.
Other overtime expenditure, such as £120,895 for school janitors, £77,902 on providing a winter gritting and £24,233 on street cleaning, is deemed absolutely necessary by the relevant service managers.
The need for the latter is abundantly clear to anyone who ventures on to Commercial Street after Friday and Saturday night revellers have left their mark, a situation which councillor Caroline Miller described as “an absolute disgrace” during Wednesday’s meeting.
Mr Greenhill said it was imperative to have a good education and enforcement regime and mentioned the possibility of running a concerted campaign in the media to tackle the problem of littering.
“It’s not acceptable,” Mr Greenhill said. “It’s a very, very clean environment we live in. A small number of people are degrading it and that’s something that needs to be looked at.”
The breakdown in overtime costs are split fairly evenly between manual (49.7 per cent) and non-manual workers (50.3 per cent).
Mr Greenhill told The Shetland Times there was definitely significant scope to reduce his department’s overtime spend and that attempts are now being made to manage it, but until he sees figures for the first month of the new financial year it will be difficult to tell how much progress is being made.
He said: “I would say that there has been a high level of regular overtime that we’re revisiting to see if we can actually do the work more efficiently.
“It could well be that it’s cheaper to employ people to do work in a normal day period than to do it on overtime, we’re still assessing the actual figures. If there’s a justification for doing overtime then there’s a budget there to do it.”