A plan aimed at cutting city spending to help balance the budget has become an unexpected windfall for some Spokane firefighters.
Most of the Spokane Fire Department’s nine battalion chiefs have earned nearly $40,000 each in overtime pay so far this year, pushing the annual earnings of most them to about $170,000 or higher, city budget documents show.
The unexpected spending is in part due to an early retirement program implemented late last year to encourage higher-paid veterans to retire, about the same time the city agreed to a new contract provision requiring that at least two battalion chiefs be on duty at all times.
“We had a number of factors that came into play that were not anticipated,” said Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams, explaining that the department had to rely on overtime shifts to comply with the contract provision after two battalion chiefs retired, one unexpectedly, and long-term illness among some of the chiefs. “We had to adjust our staffing to deal with that.”
City officials said the number of overtime shifts should begin subsiding later this month after a new battalion chief finishes training and starts taking regularly scheduled shifts.
Authorities say keeping two battalion chiefs on duty helps keep firefighters and members of the public safe, especially when there’s more than one critical incident happening at the same time. Even the 2007 Matrix Consulting Group study of Spokane city services, which was aimed at cutting costs, recommended always having two battalion chiefs on duty.
Dan Brown, president of the Spokane Fire Officers Association, said the creation of a chief position aimed at covering for others on sick leave or vacation will take a big dent out of overtime pay.
“This was a unique situation,” Brown said. “It wasn’t something any of us hoped for.”
As of mid-October, the department had spent $312,000 in overtime to the battalion chiefs.
Battalion chiefs are the on-scene commanders during emergencies and make critical decisions such as sending firefighters into burning buildings and pulling them out. Most of them have worked for the department well over two decades and earn more than $130,000 in base pay. With overtime this year, three are on pace to earn more than what their boss, Williams, earned last year. Three others will earn nearly as much. Williams’ pay in 2009 was $170,606.
Officials said some extra overtime was expected this year as the department transitioned to the new system.
But it grew because of the long-term illnesses and retirements. Also, one of the people hired to fill a spot didn’t last beyond the probationary period.
The increase this year is substantial. In 2009, for example, eight battalion chiefs earned at least $10,000 in overtime pay, including three who made more than $20,000. Before the new contract provision was developed last year, the city kept two battalion chiefs on duty, but didn’t fill vacancies when a chief was sick or on vacation.
Williams said even with a declining number of firefighters, it’s important to have two battalion chiefs on duty. Even now, he said, Spokane’s fire department has fewer battalion chiefs on duty compared to other cities of its size, he said.
“It is primarily to make sure that firefighter safety and citizen safety is maintained,” Williams said. “We were dealing with one battalion chief for 17 people. In any management realm that is not a reasonable span of control.”
Mark Vietzke, president of the Spokane Firefighters Association, which represents firefighters, said his union also believes it’s important to keep two battalion chiefs on duty.
“We support what they have negotiated for the safety of our members,” Vietzke said. “It’s the city’s responsibility to fund the fire department.”
Facing budget shortfalls, Mayor Mary Verner has decided to eliminate 28 firefighting jobs at the end of the year. Fifteen of those positions are currently unfilled. Verner has said layoffs can be avoided if unions give up their 2011 pay raises and pick up a higher share of their medical benefit costs. She said she does not support increasing taxes to help balance the budget because the average salary in Spokane County fell during the recent recession.
Vietzke and Brown said they are still in talks with city administrators about concessions. Both said the loss of 28 positions would significantly hurt service.
“We realize these are tough times,” Brown said. “We certainly will do anything we can within our bargaining agreement to make a difference.”
Brown said that by working so much overtime, the chiefs have given up a significant amount of their personal time to fill empty shifts.
“Our guys have been very faithful to the department, faithful to the contract and faithful to the citizens,” he said.