Fire Department Burns Through Overtime, Doubles Budget

City Councillors and administration officials learned Tuesday night of the startling revelation that the Fire Department overtime budget was set to double.

City Manager Ned Keefe and Acting Fire Chief Robert Houghton told a Council Committee on Conference that they would need $1.635 million in total for overtime this year, despite only having a budget for $818,000. The shocker continued when it was also revealed that another $80,000 would likely be needed for another budget doubler concerning “acting” positions where a member of the fire department has stepped up in rank temporarily to fill in for an injured superior. That “step up” requires additional pay, and there has been a lot of it this year.

This year’s budget for that was $83,000 and it will be needing another $80,000.

All told, between overtime overages and pay grade overages, the department will be coming to the Council before June to look for an addition $1 million over its budgeted amount.

“This year, before the bad weather hit, we were aware our overtime was way higher than the previous year,” said Keefe. “When the bad weather hit in January and February, that exacerbated the problem…So, we have a particular challenge here both this year and I presume, going forward.”

Last year, fed up with fire overtime increases, councillors compromised to cut the budget to $818,000 from last year’s expenditure of $1.19 million. Now, instead of cutting back on that number last year, the department will exceed last year’s budget by $500,000 – never mind the actual budget number of $818,000.

Councillors were incensed across the board, politely asking tough questions, but also maintaining that they can no longer play the overtime “wink and a nod” game – whereby a budget number for overtime is approved that never seems to be enough.

Council President Leo Robinson told Houghton that they must come up with a plan before the Council will even entertain such a supplemental expenditure – especially considering the pointed discussions about overtime that were had last year at budget time.

“You need to come up with a plan, or we will come up with a plan,” he said. “You’re heading in a direction that something needs to come back on the table or we have to look at alternatives to address the issue, like taking a piece out of service…We have to figure out a way to respond to the people we represent.”

Councillor Cliff Cunningham had some of the most pointed remarks, noting that the overall overtime budget will make up 20 percent of the entire proposed $9.4 million budget. He noted that best practices in the City’s Matrix Fire Report suggested no more than 10 percent.

“If we’re going to be fiscally responsible stewards, wouldn’t it be reasonable to fix the hole in the boat before putting more money in it?” he asked. “I have seen it all four years I have been here and this year is worse than the others. I’m not comfortable throwing more taxpayer money into an issue that isn’t fixed…There is going to come a time when that serious issue has to be addressed before I will consider throwing more money at the problem.”

The three main drivers of overtime spending since last July (the beginning of the City’s budget year) have been vacations, sick calls and long-term service related injuries. Together, they accounted for about 62 percent of overtime spending, with vacations sitting at 30 percent of that.

One of the keys there is that, by contract, five members are allowed to be out on vacation at one time. Chief Houghton said he cannot deny someone vacation time if there are not five out. However, he can and will deny the sixth person. That five-person vacation time rule, however, is compounded by those who are out sick and those with long-term illnesses. The department is forced to buy overtime due to those mitigating circumstances with all in effect.

“This year was a very high percentage for long-term service injuries,” said Houghton. “I had 14 long-term service injuries and eight of my 12 captains were out.”

Of course, with the captains out, that unlocked the “step up” pay problem.

Recently retired Chief Bob Better had been out for 18 months with an injury, returning last December for a short period and then retiring in January. His absence caused Houghton to have to move up as Acting Chief. That triggered a domino effect that moved up several other folks and was compounded by eight captains being out long-term. That, of course, led to a doubling of the budget for “step up” pay due to acting assignments.

“I just want to get to a real number,” said Councillor Dan Cortell. “If it’s not real, lets not say it is. The City Clerk’s office doesn’t come back and ask for 50 percent more than what we budgeted. That doesn’t happen.”

Added Councillor Matt Frank, “I would like to see a real budget that actually makes sense. We weren’t going to make this number even if it was a good year.”

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