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Audit uncovers startling irregularities in civilian payroll at Fire Headquarters

While it is good that Buffalo’s fire commissioner is on the case in his department’s out-of-control civilian payroll practices, the situation recently chronicled in The News leaves one wondering about the depth of the problem and whether it exists elsewhere.

An audit conducted by the City Comptroller’s Office found that there were inadequate controls at Buffalo Fire Headquarters to ensure the accuracy of the civilian payroll records. That is where suspended administrative assistant Jill M. Parisi worked.

City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder and his staff uncovered a number of unsettling practices, including civilian employees working overtime at time and a half on days when they had been credited with a full sick day. Others worked from home, some on overtime, despite the department’s lack of a formal work-at-home policy.

Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., who said he requested the review in September as part of a larger ongoing effort to modernize the department, sounds convincing when he assures the public that these abuses have been discontinued.

One of the practices the commissioner said has ended involves standard overtime request forms. Firefighters’ forms are signed by supervisors, while overtime for the five-member civilian staff at Fire Headquarters was handwritten on a piece of paper that did not specify the reason for the overtime. Those requests were then approved with an official’s signature stamp, not an actual signature.

Parisi, the senior administrative assistant in headquarters, was suspended shortly before the audit was released. She is accused of improperly changing Social Security deductions to boost take-home pay. Parisi has denied the accusations. The timing of the audit may have been coincidental, still, the details surrounding the case have been informative for the public.

It’s good that, as Whitfield told the Common Council, signature stamps are no longer used and that employees are no longer working from home. But the audit found other troubling practices. Lower-paid clerical employees were paid acting time at a higher rate whenever the senior administrative assistant in headquarters was off, even when the clericals were not performing the work of a higher-paid employee.

And there were instances of employees being paid more overtime than records indicated they actually worked, and of employees receiving more personal time off than they were entitled.

Since the Parisi suspension and release of the audit, employees from other city departments are helping with fire payroll, reducing the amount of overtime.

Whitfield was right about one thing. The department could use modernizing.