Wednesday, June 20, 2018
By David Skolnick
Because of escalating overtime costs at the fire department, stations are going to be closed on a rotating basis to make up the expenses.
City council’s three-member finance committee met Tuesday, though all seven council members attended, to discuss the overtime issue at the fire department.
The department has already spent about $81,700 of its budgeted $108,000 for overtime this year and will reach that budgeted amount by mid-July, fire Chief Barry Finley said. The problem, he said, is nine of the 127 firefighters are off duty with injuries sustained while working. That’s led to an increased need in overtime to make up the understaffing issue, he said.
Three firefighters are expected back in about a week, which should help, he said.
Finley said his department needs about $60,000 to $65,000 to cover overtime for the rest of the year.
This has been an ongoing issue for the fire department. Last year, the department’s overtime budget was $130,000, but because of staffing issues it spent about $250,000 in overtime. It would have been worse if the department didn’t obtain a federal grant of about $400,000 to offset much of the cost of hiring four firefighters to slow down overtime costs.
The fire department asked for $133,000 in overtime expenses for this year, but because the city’s general fund is barely budgeted to end in the black, it was cut to $108,000.
Finley came to council Tuesday suggesting that the city use most of an $85,000 fund to replace the rusted frame of a fire truck to cover the overtime increase. Kyle Miasek, interim finance director, said he was “inclined” to go along with Finley’s recommendation.
However, council members said a longer-term solution is needed and despite Finley saying he doesn’t “feel comfortable” shutting down a station “because we are seeing calls increase,” that’s what council decided should be done. There are eight fire stations in the city.
Closing a station would increase response times, Finley said.
But, he added, it frees up at least three firefighters to cover the staffing shortfall the department is experiencing.
No firefighters would be laid off under this scenario, Finley said.
“We have to make the tough decisions,” said Councilman T.J. Rodgers. “We’re going to put ourselves in fiscal emergency if we don’t do something.”
Finley added: “Do I want to close down stations? No. Do I want to lay guys off? No, but I see it coming.”
Councilwoman Lauren McNally, finance committee chairwoman, said: “You’re going to have to live within your budget and ask the fire department to shut down a station.”
Rather than shutting down a specific station, Finley said the department would shut down a different station each day with that starting as soon as today.