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Fire Department: Paying people to sleep is good budgeting

In the midst of a mayoral campaign featuring two of City Hall's major players, their surrogates are arguing over this: Does it make sense to pay city workers to sleep on the job?

That is what Mayor Byron W. Brown's administration and city Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder's office are bickering over after the watchdog issued an audit report that criticizes the Fire Department for excessive overtime, including having some civilian dispatchers work 24- or 48-hour shifts. Auditors questioned the practice, wondering how alert dispatchers could be when working that many hours in a row.

But fire officials said not to worry because the 24-hour shift includes four hours of paid sleep time. They argue that in some cases this practice is more cost-effective than hiring additional dispatchers and paying for the extra health care and other benefits.

“They’re basically saying hire more people and the overtime will go away, but at what expense? When you hire people, it comes at a cost,” said Parking Commissioner Kevin J. Helfer, who serves on an administration finance subcommittee.

The audit was released earlier this month and found the department paid about $10 million in overtime last fiscal year, including to dispatchers who worked 24-hour shifts on 137 occasions and who worked 48-hour shifts on seven occasions. The Fire Department is preparing a written response it will submit to the Common Council.

Schroeder audit raps city for 24-hour shifts for fire dispatchers

But while the audit numbers are correct, they don't show that there are scheduled four-hour breaks per 24-hour shift for civilian dispatchers, said Vincent V. Muscarella, deputy fire commissioner.

“We would never let anybody work with fatigue,” Helfer said.

Regular breaks are good, but is it a good way to spend taxpayer money, countered Patrick J. Curry, executive assistant to Schroeder.

“I’m relieved by regular breaks, but the question is, is it optimal to pay people to sleep on shifts? An eight-hour shift is better … What’s the best way to spend money? Obviously the best way is not to pay employees to sleep,” Curry said.

In addition to coming in the midst of a mayoral campaign in which Brown and Schroeder are competing in the Democratic primary, the new report is a follow-up to a 2016 audit in which the comptroller recommended ways to curtail overtime to civilian employees — particularly the dispatchers — and emergency responders. Yet this year's report said the problem has gotten "much, much worse."

Administration officials, however, called the report “an oversimplification of how complex this department really is.

“It’s a 24-hour business — not a 9 to 5,” Muscarella said.

Much of the dispute is about civilian overtime, Helfer said, pointing out that overtime for dispatchers in the fire alarm office came in at $1.7 million last year, while it was budgeted for $1.9 million. Similarly, civilian overtime in fire headquarters was down 28 percent, and officials said a new system for keeping track of hours worked also should reduce overtime. The department also hired three new payroll clerks and is about to bring on four new dispatchers, all of which will help reduce overtime, officials said.

“We saved $196,000 at one division, the fire alarm hours only,” Helfer said. “There is a point where it makes sense to pay overtime, and there’s a point where it makes sense to hire more people. There’s no perfect formula out there.”

Curry said there's an explanation for why overtime was reduced in fire headquarters: Because one of the employees earning the most is suspended and another left, "but they still have an employee earning $51,000 in overtime in that office."

Helfer also pointed to the department's five-member repair shop to illustrate that the issue is not as simple as it might seem.

“This is the one where (city auditors) say three employees earned overtime wages of nearly 50 percent of their base pay,” Helfer said. “This is where management has to do a lot of calculations and say does it make more sense to hire more employees and pay all those benefits — $15,000 in health care, FICA, pensions, longevity, vacation — or to say it would be more prudent to do the function with less people and pay the overtime ... We saved $134,000 by paying them overtime and not hiring more people.”

“We’re not mismanaging. It’s just not true,” he added.

But Curry said the savings in the fire repair shop is "chump change when you consider overtime in the fire department was $10 million." And while administration officials said the department remained within budget, Curry said the department actually was $1 million over budget and the $10 million spent for overtime was twice the budgeted amount.

Schroeder’s office said it will look at the next few quarterly payrolls to gauge whether progress is being made in reducing overtime.

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