Payroll errors shortchange Fort Worth police officers

FORT WORTH -- One officer who had just returned from military service worked 128 hours before seeing a paycheck.

Another was shorted more than $760 last month -- money he has still not received.

As recently as Thursday, some officers received paychecks for "$0."

A new city payroll system, implemented in mid-October, has created headaches for dozens of Fort Worth police officers who have been paid too little or, in some instances, too much.

The Fort Worth Police Officers Association said it has taken the city weeks, sometimes months, to issue corrected checks, leaving many officers struggling to pay bills and, in some cases, borrowing from their friends.

"The employees should not be left wondering if they're going to make their house payment that month because the city's payroll system can't seem to get them paid correctly," association President Rick Van Houten said.

Jason Lamers, a city spokesman, said that the city has issued 27,100 paychecks since the new payroll system went live Oct. 18 and that roughly 400 corrected checks have been issued. Officials said about half of the correction requests have come from the Police Department.

A task force of employees from other city departments is working -- including on weekends -- to address the Police Department's backlog of correction requests. Van Houten said the police association board was told Monday that the task force had resolved 165 of 285 such requests.

Human error in entering data is to blame for the incorrect paychecks and additional training is under way to correct that, Lamers said.

"It's easy sometimes to say the system's broken, but the system is working in this case," Lamers said. "What we need help with and what we're working with is inputting the data into the system correctly from timekeepers."

Once an error has been validated by police and submitted to human resources, the city's goal is to have a corrected paycheck issued within two business days, he said.

"When someone doesn't get paid correctly or appropriately, that's very serious, and we are working through those processes to get that done," Lamers said.

Complicated shifts

At issue, Van Houten said, is that the city's PeopleSoft payroll system is not compatible with officers' unpredictable and complex shifts.

"They're trying to fit a nontraditional work group into a cookie-cutter program," Van Houten said.

In some cases, officers must fill out and submit timecards for future shifts. Figuring in extras like field training or shift differential pay for eligible officers further complicates the problem, he said.

"You could end up with a time sheet, literally, that's four pages long," he said.

In a pre-council meeting last week, Police Chief Jeff Halstead told council members that the system had led to far more corrections than expected.

"Well over 90 percent is error that was input into the system that resulted in a mass amount of corrections because of a lack of understanding from multiple employees," Halstead told the council. "That builds every two weeks."

Because most errors are made by patrol officers, Halstead is assigning 15 administrative sergeants to undergo more advanced training to serve as timekeepers for patrol officers in the east division. If that's successful, he said, he will do likewise in all divisions of the city.

"If administrative sergeants know the system, then other sergeants can ask them questions," Halstead said Monday.

Peter Anderson, the city's director of information technology services, told council members that efforts are under way to provide more training and work through the backlog of correction requests.

The new payroll software is part of the $17.3 million Phase 1 upgrade to the city's financial computer system.

At Mayor Mike Moncrief's request, the council will be given weekly updates on the number of corrections beginning today.

"My concern is this system is supposed to be the greatest thing since canned beer [and] sliced bread, and I expect this to work in a manner that's giving us positive results," Moncrief told Anderson during the meeting. "I think you need to be reminded that these officers have other stuff to do besides have one more layer of responsibility on their plate."

'Living paycheck to paycheck'

Sgt. Scott Keenum, who supervises mainly rookie officers, said he has loaned some officers money to help them get by until their correction checks arrive.

"They are the absolutely youngest of the department," Keenum said. "These people are living paycheck to paycheck because some of them just got out of the academy, where they made even less money."

Keenum said he has been either underpaid or overpaid in every paycheck he has received since the new system was implemented. So far only the first check has been corrected, he said.

The length of time for officers to get corrected checks is unacceptable, Van Houten said.

"When there are errors, they need to be rectified as soon as possible on the side of the employee," he said. "Currently, if there is an error, they make the employee stand in line for weeks upon weeks, until they can fully research the error and they can give them an exact check.

"In the meantime, this employee's bills are not being paid."

According to Anderson's update to council members last week, correction requests are reviewed and researched first by the Police Department, and then submitted to the human resources payroll and contracted consultants to be researched.

Councilman W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman suggested that "the first thing you do is write a check and then go back and study whether that check was fully funded or reasonable or not and make your adjustments there."

In a meeting with city officials Thursday, police association board members also pushed for the city to issue checks first, then do their research later.

That request was turned down.

"Fort Worth has a very strong financial standing currently, and we don't believe it is appropriate to set aside our financial controls during this stabilization process," Lamers said.

Van Houten said he believes that the additional resources being provided by the city are not enough to fix the problem.

"I could be wrong on that, and I hope I am, but I believe the amount of resources being added are too little, too late," he said.

Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655