By Seth Daniel
For many City Councillors, talking about Fire Department overtime every spring is like watching a movie for the 100th time.
It’s always the same story, and the outcome just never does change.
Chief Len Albanese said during a meeting last month with the City Council that estimates to keep Fire Department overtime spending down within 20 percent of the budget is not likely going to happen this year – mostly due to contractual obligations that allow for eight scheduled jakes to be out on vacation or sick time each shift.
Albanese said that spending is likely going to come in at 25 percent or higher – hearkening back to serious disagreements only a few years ago between the Department and the Council when overtime costs were double what was budgeted.
The Council agreed to give Albanese 20 percent in overtime in the last budget cycle at his request, despite a recommendation by the Matrix Report a few years ago that spending should be capped at 10 percent. Albanese said he didn’t feel the 10 percent recommendation was reasonable.
“We could meet the budget still if everything goes right,” said the Chief. “We would need to be at $19,000 per week in overtime. Right now, we’re at $26,000 per week, which comes in at about $1.3 million for the year…The only way things are going to change and to have more firefighters on the street is to have less on vacations and more people coming to work. It’s that simple…We spend what we have to. This is higher than I anticipated. I’d like to come back and say we spent only what we said we would. Time will tell.
One of the keys to the situation is the fact that Chelsea averages around 17 to 18 firefighters per shift, where nearby cities average close to 19 per shift. Chelsea is budgeted for 20 to 21 firefighters per shift if everyone shows up to work, but due to a stipulation in the Fire Contract, up to eight people can be gone on vacation and sick time – which opens up the need for administration to hire on overtime that is far more expensive than pay for a regular shift.
Albanese said the comp time in the contract is high, and he hopes to negotiate that down when the contract comes due in June.
“The comp time is high,” he said. “It was agreed to by the previous administration. That number needs to come down. You can’t allow eight people to go home on any given day and expect to maintain the right numbers on the apparatus…On June 30 the contract is up. We hope to talk about that and other things too.”
One of the keys, however, is Albanese’s and City Manager Tom Ambrosino’s plan to increase significantly the staffing on the Fire Department, something the Union has called for over a period of several years. The hope is that with more staffing and the lowering of the comp time – having more people showing up to regular shifts – that the overtime costs could be brought down.
Albanese cautioned that it wouldn’t mean overtime goes away, as paying some in overtime is actually financially beneficial over hiring too many firefighters and having to pay benefits.
“It’s a delicate balance that you have to figure out,” he said.
The plan is to bring the contingent up to 96 firefighters with City funding from the current level of 94 no matter what happens.
However, utilizing a federal SAFER grant, the City hopes to use 25 percent City money and 75 percent federal money to hire eight additional firefighters – bringing the contingent up to 102.
The SAFER grant lasts for three years, and the federal government picks up 75 percent of the tab for two years, and 35 percent for the third year. After that, the City is fully responsible to pay for the hires.
Albanese said he was very optimistic the City would prevail in getting the grant.
That said, there is now some worry that the City’s Sanctuary City status may impede the awarding of that grant through the new Trump Administration’s call to potentially strip Sanctuary Cities of federal grant funding.
No one is quite sure how that will turn out at the moment.
Councillor Dan Cortell said he is disappointed by the numbers, but is willing to take more time to get things in line.
“This chief deserves a year to put his fingerprint on the situation,” he said. “Obviously, this is a little bit frustrating to see these numbers. With that said, I promised a year and i’ll give them that year.”
Council President Leo Robinson said he came to the chief with four areas of concern at budget time last year, and he hopes those things can still be addressed.
“My goal is and has been to see this overtime spending go down, no up,” he said.
Councillor Damali Vidot said she looks forward to having new people at the table to try to solve the problem.
“I’m happy to have a new Fire Chief an a new City Manager and a new union representative working with the City Councillors,” she said.