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City officials alarmed at overtime in Fire Department

Overtime costs in the Fire Department more than doubled this summer compared with a year ago, a trend that is being scrutinized by the Common Council and the city control board.

But the head of the fire union insists the figures only prove that Buffalo doesn't have enough firefighters.

The city paid $1.6 million in overtime to firefighters between July 1 and Sept. 11, up from $774,000 in the same period a year ago.

Even more troubling, according to budget officials, is that the Fire Department has spent nearly 60 percent of its annual overtime allotment in the first 10 weeks of the fiscal year.

Finance Commissioner James B. Milroy cites several causes. The fire force has shrunk by 27 through attrition over the past year. About 20 firefighters are currently on injured-on-duty status, and several are on military duty in Iraq, leaving fewer people in firehouses.

"I don't want to give the impression that games are being played with overtime, because I don't think there are," said Milroy. "But it's definitely a problem area in the current budget."

City officials recently briefed Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority staffers about overtime concerns.

"We are following the issue very closely and expect the city will come forward with an appropriate budget modification if necessary for financial plan balance," said Dorothy A. Johnson, the control board's executive director.

Fire union President Joseph E. Foley said increased overtime shows that Buffalo needs more firefighters. He said overtime costs can't be expected to stay the same with fewer firefighters. "The city seems to want it both ways all the time," he said. "They want to save on personnel costs and fringe benefits, but they don't want overtime to increase."

Even Niagara Council Member Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr., who heads the Budget Committee, wondered whether the city made a mistake by not hiring a new class of fire recruits. Milroy said the issue is a "nonstarter" with the control board.

"You have a control board that's absolutely convinced there are too many firefighters now, and that the cuts in our four-year plan could be even greater," Milroy said.

When the Fire Department restructuring is completed, the force will shrink to 675, from about 820 two years ago. Foley said there are currently about 750 firefighters. Eight firehouses will be closed, while five others will be built or expanded at more centralized sites.

New firehouses on Hertel Avenue, just east of Elmwood Avenue, and in the Delavan-Fillmore neighborhood are scheduled to open this fall. A firehouse expansion on Main Street at Mercer Avenue is almost finished. City officials expect the consolidated facilities will help reduce overtime costs.

Meanwhile, new concerns are being raised about the Hertel-Elmwood location by fire union officials and at least one Council member. They want environmental officials to review the proximity of a Niagara Mohawk substation. Foley fears that having a transformer within yards of where firefighters spend large amounts of time could pose health hazards. North Council Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. also voiced concerns.

But Niagara Mohawk spokesman Stephen F. Brady and city fire officials dismissed claims that the transformer's presence raises safety issues. They note that such transformers are located in neighborhoods throughout the area, and that the transformer near Hertel has been located near homes and businesses for many years.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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