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Firefighter Overtime Costs City Millions By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday April 05, 2005

Fourteen Berkeley firefighters took home more than $30,000 in overtime last year, while six earned more than $50,000 over their base salary, city records show. 

While Fire Department overtime is projected to cost the city $2.4 million this fiscal year—about 25 percent higher than original projections—city officials contend that soaring overtime costs are the product of bad breaks, not bad management. 

“It’s just a number of bad circumstances coming together,” said City Manager Phil Kamlarz. He said an unusually high number of retirements and military, parental and sick leaves had left the department undermanned since the second half of 2004. 

The City of Berkeley projects spending $6.5 million on overtime this fiscal year, 75 percent of which will go to police and fire, according to a city report. Police overtime, also slated to cost $2.4 million this fiscal year, is in line with budget projections. Most of the remaining overtime costs is in the Public Works Department for emergency repair jobs, Kamlarz said. 

“Overtime is a serious concern,” said Councilmember Gordon Wozniak. “When firefighters make over $2 million a year, that’s a substantial chunk of change.” 

In order to reduce $1.2 million fire overtime expenses next fiscal year, Berkeley’s Fire Department is preparing to shut down up to two fire companies at a time and reduce minimum staffing levels from 34 to 28 beginning in July. 

The Fire Department’s top overtime earner for 2004 was Firefighter/EMT Mark Caldwell, who pulled in $77,042 on top of his base pay of $81,642. Following Caldwell was Firefighter/EMT Sheppard Lewis at $72,177 and Fire Apparatus Operator/EMT Charles Wong at $69,952. Wong topped the department’s salary scale last year, taking home $176,322. By comparison, in 2003, City Manager Phil Kamlarz made $173,733, according to city records. 

“For fire it’s a difficult question of how do you staff for keeping companies open,” Kamlarz said. Current city policy, he added, is to recruit new firefighters after five retirements. Soaring pension benefits have made relying on overtime more cost effective, Kamlarz said. This year, pension contributions will cost Berkeley 40 percent on top of salaries for every police officer and 25 percent on top of salaries for firefighters. 

Last September the department had 18 firefighters on leave and seven job openings, Deputy Fire Chief David Orth previously told the Planet. Since January, the department hired six new firefighters and returned several others from leave, but the department remains understaffed, Chief Debra Pryor said. Due to more retirements and promotions, the department currently has six vacancies and four employees on workers compensation. 

Pryor said city budget issues have so far kept the department from filling vacancies. If she gets approval, Pryor said new recruits would take three months to train. Pryor added that between $100,000 and $150,000 in overtime expenses would be reimbursed through a training grant with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

Much of the overtime worked last year was forced on firefighters, said Gil Dong, president of the firefighters union. From July 2004 through this January, he said there were 270 instances when a firefighter was ordered to work because of a staffing shortage. For the previous year, Dong said there were only 27 such cases. He attributed much of the forced overtime to the lag in training new firefighters to replace those who retired last year. 

“If we want to get out of the overtime issue, we need to hire people as soon as we get vacancies,” he said. 

The Fire Department uses a volunteer list for overtime sign-ups, with priority going to firefighters who have logged the fewest overtime hours, Dong said. When nobody volunteers, the department orders firefighters back to work. The maximum shift is 72 hours. 

Dong added that several injuries sustained by firefighters last year were caused by collapsed gurneys carrying injured people. In one rescue, Dong said, two firefighters needed shoulder surgery after the gurney collapsed. The gurney issue has since been resolved, Pryor said. 

Despite the system which seeks to disperse overtime hours, Caldwell, Sheppard and Lewis have been among the top five department overtime recipients every year since 2000, according to city reports.  

Overall, police and fire overtime hours are down, city reports show. Police worked 19.5 percent fewer overtime hours last year than they did in fiscal year 1999. And, until this year, firefighter overtime hours had also been on the decline from just under 40,000 hours in fiscal year 2002 to just over 25,000 hours last fiscal year.  

However pay increases for both departments have increased costs. In 2004, of the city’s 116 firefighters employed throughout the year, 90 earned over $100,000. In 2000, only 38 firefighters earned more than $100,000. For police, 85 out of 180 officers who worked the full year earned over 100,000 in 2004, compared to 32 in 2000. 

Four police officers earned over $30,000 in overtime last year. The top recipient was Sergeant Edward Spiller, who took home $40,686 in overtime pay. According to city reports, 38 percent of police overtime is attributable to shift extensions and backfilling for officers on leave. Other main causes for police overtime are holidays, special events, vacation, and court appearances.  

This year’s fire department overtime bill pales in comparison to 2001 when 14 firefighters earned more than $40,000 for extra work. That year, Fire Prevention Inspector Richard Ellison topped the department by earning $120,860 in overtime over a base salary of $73,439, followed by Lewis with $101,945 and Caldwell at $96,103 in overtime pay.