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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Absolute last resort’: Spokane City Council approves $3.4 million to cover unanticipated firefighter overtime

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 7, 2021

As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building Oct 11.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
As the sun sets in downtown Spokane, a pedestrian walks by the entrance of the City Hall building Oct 11. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Spokane City Council begrudgingly pulled $3.4 million from city reserves to compensate for the Fire Department’s massive use of overtime pay this year.

The city has pledged to conduct a review of its sick leave usage after overtime pay surged this year, exacerbating an issue members of the City Council have been calling out for several years.

The administration’s initial request last month was for an extra $5 million, but the amount was whittled down by council and administration budget staffers in recent weeks. The administration also initially asked to pull the money from the city’s contingency reserves, which the council resisted.

Instead, the money was pulled from reserves tied to the Public Safety Levy approved by city voters in 2019 and from the American Rescue Plan.

“That’s an absolute last resort in my book… we can always work together to find creative ways to finance some of these problems before we hit that last stopgap,” Councilwoman Candace Mumm said.

Administration officials expressed surprise and dismay last month at the level of overtime spending incurred by the fire department and increased use of sick time. In a typical two-week pay period, overtime costs are about $232,000, but they spiked to about $576,000 per pay period this fall, according to city officials.

Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29 has claimed that the overtime costs are related to staffing levels. Its leaders have argued that the city has been unable to hire new employees at a pace that keeps up with the retirements and departures in recent years.

The union has also noted that the uptick in sick leave coincided with the arrival of the delta variant and increase in COVID-19 cases across Spokane County.

The department hopes to bolster staffing with 20 new hires in 2022.

The fire department’s budget woes appear likely to continue into the new year. While the city will commence with a review of sick leave usage, it will not be complete in time to influence the 2022 budget before City Council votes on it on Monday.

The city has started an external study of overtime use by the fire department. The study will cost $110,000.

City Council members excoriated the administration last month, noting that funding was allocated for an overtime study in the 2021 budget but there still hasn’t been one.

The budget for fire and emergency medical services was about $56 million in 2021, but it’s been clear for months that the city would likely exceed that number.

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