The new Lowry Avenue bridge and other major transportation projects helped increase Hennepin County's overtime bill last year to $5.3 million, an increase of 8.8 percent from the year before, according to a Star Tribune analysis.

Five of the top 10 overtime earners in Hennepin County last year were Transportation Department engineers, who earned an average of $41,200 over and above their normal pay. The top engineer earned just more than $56,000 in overtime.

The Sheriff's Department paid out the most, $2.7 million, an increase of 13.6 percent. Transportation was second, paying out $1.1 million in overtime, a 9.4 percent increase.

County Administrator Richard Johnson defended the county's use of overtime, saying that it's a cost-effective way of covering short-term job needs and that no budgets needed additional funds to cover it.

"Used judiciously, it's a good management tool. You can't always control your workload," he said.

Johnson said that the Lowry Bridge project, a $104 million project that began in 2009 and is scheduled to be completed this fall, drove most of the Transportation Department's overtime. It's a 1,600-foot bridge with a basket-handle arch that has cost more and taken longer to finish than first planned.

"We've had additional inspectors on there, and I assume some of the big earners will continue in 2012," he said.

Improvements to untangle the so-called Devil's Triangle at Bottineau Boulevard and 85th Avenue N. in Brooklyn Park, both county roads, also drew a lot of overtime, he said.

Johnson said regular pay for county employees has been flat for three years, contributing to the overtime need. To address the loss of state aid and other budget issues, salaries have been frozen and scores of county employees have taken voluntary furloughs for several hours annually. The county also has cut scores of jobs through attrition in the last few years.

Johnson said that departments build room into their annual spending plans to accommodate possible overtime. None had to amend their budgets last year to cover overruns, he said.

Sheriff's Office: 24/7

Overtime pay long has been an issue in the Sheriff's Office. It rose by 265 percent under Sheriff Pat McGowan in the mid-1990s. In 1998, the department paid $3 million in overtime, nearly 11 percent of total salaries earned by Sheriff's Office employees.

Last year, overtime accounted for 5.4 percent of total pay in the Sheriff's Office. "We budget 2.5 to 3 percent in our operating budget for overtime. We used to budget at 8 percent," Sheriff Rick Stanek said.

But the Sheriff's Office overtime bill still made up half of the county's total overtime pay last year. About 79 percent of employees received an average of $4,202 in overtime pay last year.

Stanek cited a number of reasons.

"We're the third-largest department within Hennepin County, but we are one of only two 24/7 operations, 365 days a year," he said. "Our jail population is up 4 percent over last year, and we're on track to have more bookings than we've had the last couple years."

Overtime was used to cover for 15 Sheriff's Office employees who were on military deployments lasting three months to a year. The regular salaries of those deployed were paid by the military, he said.

The department spent $118,000 on overtime in the fall of 2011 when hundreds of protesters participated in the Occupy Minnesota demonstrations on the Hennepin County Government Center plaza.

Sheriff's personnel also worked overtime on Minneapolis' SafeZone project to improve downtown safety, and in the wake of the May 2011 tornado. But the department was partly reimbursed for that overtime by the state and the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Transportation overtime

Five engineering technicians in the Transportation Department were among the top 10 overtime earners in the county last year, averaging nearly $42,000 each in overtime pay. The highest earner, Ned A. Miller, made $56,118 in overtime, which amounted to 43 percent of his gross pay of $130,601. Shawn Lockrem, who was second on the list, doubled his overtime pay from $24,051 in 2010 to $48,925 last year.

But Miller, who got the most overtime pay of any county employee in 2010 as well, didn't come close to the top echelon of Hennepin earners. He was in 52nd place on the county payroll, behind Stanek ($149,500), County Attorney Mike Freeman ($149,500), County Administrator Johnson ($163,700) and the county's highest-paid employee, Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Baker ($227,100).

County commissioners have kept their own pay at $97,080 since 2008.

The county payroll no longer includes employees at Hennepin County Medical Center, which became a subsidiary corporation of the county in 2007. Legislation creating Hennepin Healthcare System, which now governs the hospital, protects the HCMC payroll from public disclosure for competitive reasons.

County Board Chair Mike Opat and Commissioner Jan Callison, who chairs the board's budget committee, said they were satisfied that county man- agers haven't abused overtime pay.

Opat credited the Sheriff's Office with doing a better job keeping its costs in check, even though overtime can't be avoided.

"People call in sick, and you can't staff for every eventuality ... You can insulate yourself from overtime through hiring more bodies, but then you're paying for it all the time."

Computer-assisted reporting editor Glenn Howatt contributed to this story. Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455