City Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder Friday released a report showing that overtime in the Buffalo Fire Department increased substantially in the past year.
Some employees worked 24 hours – even 48-hour – shifts. And two of the civilian employees working many of the 24-hour shifts are daughters of the recently retired fire commissioner.
"I don't think it's possible to work a 48 hour shift, and I'm very leery of anyone working a 24-hour shift," Schroeder said Friday.
Overall, overtime in the department cost more than $10 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Elsewhere this weekend, Schroeder will play a different role: campaigning for his run against Mayor Byron W. Brown in the Democratic primary in September.
Juggling those two roles didn't stop the comptroller from holding a news conference Friday to highlight what he contends is a lack of progress in acting on previous recommendations to curtail overtime.
Schroeder "rejected the question" when asked if the audit report was politically motivated.
"This is a legitimate audit," he said. "I challenge anybody to tell me I have any political hacks up here."
Schroeder's staff spotlighted the overtime problem in 2016 and made recommendations to the Brown administration then to curb costs.
"Obviously, this is very costly to taxpayers. It's also a public safety hazard," Schroeder said.
“Here we are a year and a half later, plenty of time to implement these changes. We found the problem got worse, not better,” said Patrick J. Curry, executive assistant to Schroeder.
"The 24-hour shifts are alarming, and it's not a rare occurrence," Curry said. "It's not a good practice."
When people work such long hours, there are bound to be "negative consequences," Curry said.
Overtime hours worked by civilian employees as well as emergency responders, which includes firefighters, increased substantially, Curry said.
“Overtime has been increasing across the board, especially in the civilian positions where you have the most predictable amount of work … to allow this to continue is troubling,” Curry said.
Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. retired late last week as fire commissioner, a position he had held since 2010. He cited health and family concerns.
Deputy Fire Commissioner Johnathan T. Eaton and Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer, who sits on Brown's finance subcommittee, will work with Schroeder's office on the audit.
"There's a plan in place," Brown spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said. "The mayor has appointed a fiscal subcabinet to pick up the audit from here. They will work with Audit and Control over the next week or two."
Also, a meeting will be scheduled next week with Eaton, members of the civil service administration, Schroeder's office and Council members to go over the recommendations to ensure implementation, according to Richard A. Fontana, chairman of the Common Council Finance Committee.
The June follow-up report found that overtime hours worked by civilian employees – which includes dispatch and other employees at fire headquarters – increased by 9 percent in fiscal year 2017 to an average of 401 hours, up from 320 hours in the 2016 audit.
“It’s the equivalent of more than 10 weeks of full-time service,” Curry said.
Overtime for civilian employees increased 14 percent to average $12,800 per employee. That's compared to $11,300 in fiscal year 2016. Staffing levels remained constant, the Audit and Control Department found.
There are 41 civilian full-time employees in the fire department, Curry said.
Civilian dispatch, in particular, which has 11 full-time employees, saw overtime earnings increase by 67 percent, $141,000 to $235,000.
Civilian dispatchers logged 137 instances in which they worked 24-hour shifts. Three employees worked nearly 60 percent of those instances. Two are daughters of former Commissioner Whitfield, Kamilah and Tiffany.
Beyond confirming that they are his daughters, Whitfield would not comment on the audit report.
In addition, there were seven instances of employees working 48-hour shifts.
Overtime hours for firefighters also increased, going up 25 percent to an average of 268 hours per employee. Overtime earnings increased 23 percent to average $15,500 per employee during fiscal year 2017. That's up from $12,300 the year before. The Fire Department has 593 full-time emergency responders, Curry said.
The expectation is that the new firefighters hired recently will bring down the overall costs of department overtime, Curry said. While civilian employees amassed more overtime dollars, firefighters have a larger base salary than the civilian pool.
The follow-up report also found that overtime at fire headquarters is not adequately documented. The proper procedure is for management to approve overtime before the extra hours are worked, and overtime documentation should note the number of hours approved, the overtime hours worked and the work that was completed during overtime.
However, a testing of 36 overtime request forms from Feb. 27 to March 26 showed that two overtime request forms had no approval signatures. One employee had 18 overtime request forms totaling 75 hours with no reason for the overtime documented. And one employee had two overtime requests for working through lunch, which the report said means the employee "is essentially paid for 9 hours (1 being OT at time and a half) for working an 8 hour day."