Fire Overtime Remains a Snag in City Budget

Members of the City Council will sharpen their pencils and take one last stab at the 2016-17 fiscal year budget during its meeting this Friday morning, May 27. And the subject of Fire Department overtime — and, by extension, the level of staffing on San Marino’s fire engine — will likely continue to be a hot-button issue.
At the May 12 council meeting, Mayor Dr. Allan Yung said he wanted to see Fire Department overtime limited to a firm cap of $183,000 for the coming fiscal year. This for a department that required $390,137 for overtime pay in 2014-15 and is on track to spend $454,000 in overtime for the 2015-16 fiscal year that ends next month.
City Manager John Schaefer said he plans to propose this $183,000 overtime ceiling to the full council Friday morning.
A more draconian proposal to rein in Fire Department expenditures by laying off three firemen was withdrawn by Councilman Dr. Steven Huang; no other member of the council showed the slightest interest in making such a deep cut in Fire Department staffing.
The council has, however, exhibited resolve for reducing Fire Department overtime, which has climbed steadily over each of the past four fiscal years — from $338,816 (2011-12) to $353,777 to $375,156 to $390,137 to the estimated $454,000 in 2015-16. Yung referred to this trend as a “bleeding sore.”
Overtime pay is required when a firefighter cannot fill a shift because of an illness, an injury suffered on duty, vacation time or an absence due to training. In order to maintain full staffing on each of three shifts — a captain, an engineer and two firefighter/paramedics on the engine, plus two firefighter/paramedics on the ambulance — the SMFD needs to call on a replacement from within its ranks to fill any such vacancy on an overtime basis.
With a limit of $183,000 in overtime, which is less than half a year’s worth given current trends, the Fire Department would likely have to operate the engine at times with the captain, engineer and one firefighter/paramedic. The department has consistently blanched at this reduction from a staff of four on the engine, citing the prospect of property loss if the crew has to wait for a backup unit to arrive.
Fire Chief Mario Rueda has pointed to a deployment study he wants to have conducted early in the new fiscal year. The $183,000 overtime allotment would buy him a little time to get it completed and present the results to the council, in hopes that it will then allocate his department an additional $183,000. But that’s a bit of a gamble. Yung has said he wants to hold the department to the original figure. Richard Ward has said he’s not convinced that four on the engine represents an industry standard. And Huang, obviously, feels the department should run with three on the engine at all times. That would represent a majority on the five-member council.
Nathan Foth, who heads the local firefighters’ union, said, “It’s a difficult pill to swallow when they say let’s go ahead and cut staffing, sort of arbitrarily, when they have admitted no financial need to do so. It’s not like we’re doing anything different than we had been.”
Foth disputed the notion that Fire Department overtime is spiraling upward, noting that it has fluctuated over the years depending on the number of injured firefighters and other factors. Past budget figures bear him out, to a point: Overtime dropped in 2006-07, in 2009-10 and in 2011-12. Over the last 10 years, it has averaged $353,000.
And yet there is evidence of an upward trend recently. Overtime costs have exceeded that average in each of the last five years, during which time it has seen annual jumps of (in order) 4%, 6%, 4% and the current 16%.
Fire officials argue that some of the department’s costs in the current fiscal year will be recoverable.
“Are there other ways to keep four guys on the engine?” Schaefer said. “I would love to keep four guys on the engine. I just don’t want to write a blank check that says whatever it takes to keep four guys on the engine is what the city has to pay.”
The vice mayor, Dr. Richard Sun, raised the prospect of hiring another firefighter to cover the replacement shifts. Another option is hiring a couple of part-timers and plugging them in where needed when a firefighter schedules a vacation or is going to be absent because of an injury. Either option would be cheaper than repeatedly shelling out for overtime, officials say.
The full-timer is called a “suitcase firefighter,” since he or she would be a kind of a floater on the schedule, as opposed to working regularly with the same people on the same shift.
One potential tweak to that prospect, Schaefer said, would be to hire a rookie firefighter and assign him or her to a specific shift, so that experience can be gained working repeatedly with the same crew. At the same time, an existing firefighter could be offered a promotion to engineer and asked to be the suitcase member of the force. This person would offer greater scheduling flexibility, being able to drive the engine or work as a firefighter/paramedic, and the bump in pay could be mitigation for having an irregular schedule.

Other issues that figure to stir discussion on the council Friday are whether the Recreation Department needs to have a full-time administrative analyst and whether the San Marino Police Department’s two lieutenants should be upgraded to the rank of commander. Both actions would involve pay raises. Also on the table is whether Assistant City Manager Lucy Garcia’s duties should be divided in thirds among Administration, Library and Recreation, as opposed to having the latter two departments run by Irene McDermott and Rosa Pinuelas, respectively.

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