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Sally Swartz: Audit finds Martin firefighters overpaid — literally

Martin County firefighters and paramedics soon will have to repay a small portion of the more than $200,000 their staff overpaid them in salaries over the last several years – ranging from less than $1 to more than $5,000 a year.

Credit Martin’s Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller Carolyn Timmann for catching the errors. Timmann ordered a first-ever audit of the Fire Rescue Department after employees began comparing paychecks and asked about the accuracy of their earnings.

McGladrey LLP, the county’s independent auditing firm, started out to do a routine audit of 2013-14 payroll records, and discovered big problems.

Incomplete, conflicting and missing records soon sparked a more in-depth review, Timmann said in a letter to Commission Chairman Ed Fielding, of 201 of 297 firefighter-rescue employees’ records. The department has 352 employees, including administrative workers.

The auditors found a tangled web, complicated by several different contracts with the firefighters’ union. About 48 individuals received more than $100 more than their annual wages, with 20 earning in excess of $1,000 more than they should. Others earned more than $5,000. A few receive less than they should, but most of those amounts were $1 or less.

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The county could opt to forgive the over-payments, and at least one commissioner apparently wants to do that. But when the county budget already is tight, requiring no restitution seems extreme. Timmann’s letter outlines a plan to fix the problems.

County Administrator Taryn Kryzda agrees with Timmann’s proposal that the county meet with each employee with a discrepancy, sort out individual problems and records, and reset salaries starting March 8. If officials use the calendar year, rather than the fiscal year, workers will pay back only the overpayment they received between January and March.

That seems like very little. But Timmann cites the county’s human resources policy, which requires restitution for any overpayment be confined to one year, even if errors go back much further – and these do. Some affected employees are retired and have no salaries for the county to adjust. Some errors, particularly in interpreting contract changes, Timmann said, go back as far as 25 years.

She doesn’t blame individual firefighters for the mistakes, she said, since the Fire-Rescue Department’s administrative employees, not the firefighters, prepare the payroll. But she suggests changes and monitoring to make future payrolls accurate.

Kryzda agrees. “We will make sure people are being paid appropriately. And this won’t be the last payroll audit.”

While officials try to sort out the payroll mess, residents are annoyed that the Martin County Professional Firefighters & Paramedics, the group’s union, has sent out a letter asking for money. Union representatives did not return repeated calls asking for comment, but the letter claims the group needs money for CPR classes, scholarships, charity events and “better equipment and training.”

Kryzda said the county has a training division.

Soliciting residents for more money for any reason – when fire department employees already are the highest paid in the county – seems misguided. With high salaries and overtime, more than 60 firefighters earn more than $100,000 a year.

For years, firefighters have campaigned for county commission candidates who support fewer controls on growth and development. When those candidates were elected, they often pushed for special treatment and benefits. But careful growth candidates prevailed in the last two elections, despite some aggressive campaigning by firefighters. Commissioners may be more inclined to consider Timmann’s sensible solutions.

They should. Because of the county’s one-year restitution limit, there’s no way all the over-payments can ever be recovered. But repaying something is reasonable and doable. So is ensuring that the days of sloppy bookkeeping at the Fire Rescue Department are over for good.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Post Editorial Board. Find her blog posts and others at The Palm Beach Post Opinion Zone. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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