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Overtime defeats cost controls set for city's fire, police departments

The hiring and wage freeze did little to control costs in the Buffalo Fire Department, where overtime payments more than doubled, increasing the average firefighter's paycheck by more than $3,000, or 5.4 percent, over the past year, a Buffalo News payroll analysis found.

With the number of firefighters dropping from 808 in 2004 to 768 in 2005, payroll costs were expected to decline.

Instead, the overall Fire Department payroll for the 2005 calendar year was $51.85 million, up slightly from $51.39 million in 2004, the analysis found.

Wages were frozen during that period, so the contributing factor was overtime. The fire department spent $4.43 million in overtime costs in 2005 -- up more than $2 million from 2004, when overtime was $2.05 million, the analysis found.

The overtime was shared throughout the department, averaging about $5,800 per firefighter in 2005, increasing the average firefighter's pay to $64,198 in 2005 -- about $3,290, or 5.4 percent, above the 2004 average of $60,908, the News analysis found.

City officials last week blamed the large number of firefighters out with work-related injuries for the overtime and said it might be necessary to ask the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, the state-imposed control board, to lift the department's hiring freeze to avoid a continued escalation of the overtime costs.

"This is a very dangerous job," said Deputy Fire Commissioner Patrick T. Lewis. "By the numbers being cut, there's less guys going to more fires."

The News analysis found the number of firefighters receiving injured-on-duty pay was just slightly higher in 2005 than in 2004 -- 71 versus 68. However, the analysis showed that injury pay was one-third higher, indicating they were out of work for a longer period of time.

The city Police Department also questions the staffing levels the Control Board set for it. However, at this point, police asked only that their staffing levels be reviewed.

While Police Department overtime is also on the rise, it doesn't begin to reach the Fire Department levels.

The Buffalo Police Department did, however, see a substantial increase in the cost of officers injured on duty -- a reflection, union leaders say, of more officers being injured since one-officer cars were implemented.

Also, some injured officers and firefighters are staying off work longer because of delays by the city in getting approvals for medical tests, union officials said.

The police payroll, nonetheless, dropped by 2.5 percent, from $57.3 million in 2004 to $55.9 million in 2005.

Police overtime costs, however, after dropping sharply in past years, went up by 32 percent in 2005 compared with 2004, adding $450,000 to the overtime pool.

Largely because of that money, police salaries, on average, increased by 1.5 percent -- from $69,320 in 2004 to $70,360 in 2005 -- despite the wage and hiring freeze, The News found.

The increases are not uniform across the department, since police overtime is generally based on seniority. While about 42 percent of officers on the force saw their salaries increase by $1,000 or more, a few -- members of the crime scene unit -- saw their pay jump by as much as $20,000 to $30,000, the analysis found.

About 38 percent of officers saw their paychecks remain roughly the same over the past year. However, about 20 percent saw their paychecks drop by $1,000 or more.

Buffalo police officials said the higher overtime reflects the fact that the department's ranks have thinned, and overtime is sometimes necessary to ensure the city is adequately protected. There are 773 officers now, compared with 839 on Jan. 1, 2004.

The Police Department is trying to reduce overtime. However, given the department's staffing level and increased responsibilities, it is also asking the city to increase its overtime budget in the coming year, said Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson.

At the same time that the control board has ordered departmental cuts, the city police force must take over for the recently dismantled Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority police department, and also to handle bank robberies no longer handled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Gipson said.

Police Union President Robert P. Meegan Jr. said the situation is frustrating to Buffalo police officers, who feel betrayed. The officers agreed to one-officer car patrols and changes in their schedule in exchange for raises that the control board subsequently halted.

Meegan said the one-officer cars are responsible for increased injuries among police officers.

The number of officers out for less than six months on duty disability went from 61 in 2004 to 175 in 2005, with the dollar value of the lost time going from $3.3 million to $3.6 million, the payroll shows.

The number of officers on long-term duty disability, defined as six months or longer, went from 27 to 29, but the cost of that lost time increased to $1.4 million, from $682,000, the payroll analysis found.

Meegan said the increased cost in long-term duty disability reflects city delays in paying medical bills and authorizing medical care. Fire union officials made a similar claim in helping to explain why on-duty injuries among firefighters have become more costly to the city.

Leonard A. Matarese, the head of the city's Human Resources office, has denied the city has dragged its feet in authorizing appropriate medical care. However, he also said that the administration hopes to commit more staff to handling the payment of medical bills. And Fire Department officials said the situation seems to be improving.

Also, city and fire union officials agreed that more training is needed to prevent injuries among firefighters.

State policies that have made it more difficult to switch injured firefighters and police officers from the city payroll to the state's disability pension program also have been a factor, city officials have said.

e-mail: sschulman@buffnews.com

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