Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 26, 2010

Palo Alto firefighters' overtime costs soar

Department exceeded overtime budget by more than half due to injuries, minimum-staffing requirement

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's firefighters have already used up more than 150 percent of their overtime budget for fiscal year 2009-2010 — a number that's expected to continue climbing in the last three months of the year, which ends June 30.

According to a city report released earlier this month, the 123-member department had spent $1.57 million on overtime by the end of January, far exceeding its $1 million budget for the fiscal year. The report attributes this rise largely to the department's "minimum staffing" requirement, which is written into the city's contract with Palo Alto Firefighters, Local 1319.

The requirement forces the Fire Department to keep at least 29 firefighters on duty at all times, or 31 firefighters when Station 8 in the foothills is open. So when several firefighters get injured, go on vacation or take a bereavement leave, their colleagues in the department have to put in extra time.

Another city document released this month — a list of all city workers' gross salaries for 2009 — illustrates the department's overtime spike. In 2009, eight of the City of Palo Alto's top 10 overtime earners were in the fire department. Fire Captain Jason Amdur led the field by earning $86,179 in overtime — a number that boosted his overall salary to $207,585. By contrast, in 2008, only four firefighters made it into the city's top 10.

The department's overtime costs have routinely exceeded its budget and have escalated over the years, rising from $1.23 million in 2003 to $1.6 million in 2009. The number is expected to go up another notch in 2010.

Fire Chief Nick Marinaro told the City Council's Finance Committee on March 2 the department's overtime numbers could be partially attributed to Station 8 and Medic-1 — programs that rely on overtime for their staffing. According to a report from the Administrative Services Department, the two programs account for about $435,000 of the department's 2010 overtime costs.

But the other $1.1 million can be traced primarily to the minimum-staffing requirement, the report states. The number is particularly high this year because an extraordinarily high number of firefighters went on full disability.

Marinaro said the department had 13 employees on disability as of the end of January — seven more than a year ago. This included four firefighters who suffered their injuries while off duty, including one who got injured while skiing and another one who hurt himself while playing basketball.

"We had an extraordinary number of disability personnel, and when they're on disability we have to backfill for them," Marinaro said. "The number almost doubled — it's really an aberration."

In each case, the minimum staffing requirement forced other employees to take over for those on leave and, in the process, pick up overtime hours. Some firefighters chose to shoulder more than their fair share of extra duty and, as a result, ended up on top of the city's overtime list, Marinaro said.

Marinaro said four of the 13 injured employees have since returned to duty.

Staffing levels at the department are expected to be a hot topic in coming months, as Palo Alto's administrators begin contract negotiations with the firefighters union.

With the city facing a $6.3 million budget shortfall in the current fiscal year, City Manager James Keene has asked each department to identify possible savings. Tony Spitaleri, president of the Palo Alto Firefighters, Local 1319, said the department is already at a "bare bones" level and has nothing left to give.

Palo Alto's current three-year contract with the union will expire June 30 and the department has hired a consultant to analyze its scope of services and staffing levels. Marinaro told the Weekly the Finance Committee will hear an update on the study on April 20 and that most of the study is scheduled to be completed by May 17.

The full report is scheduled to be completed by June 7, he said.

Meanwhile, the firefighters' union is hoping Palo Alto voters will prevent the city from trimming the department's staffing levels. Earlier this month, the union began an effort to put a measure on the November ballot that would require Palo Alto voters to approve any reduction to the Fire Department's staffing levels and any proposal to shut down a fire station.

The union needs to get 5,446 signatures from Palo Alto's registered voters to get the measure on the ballot. On Monday night, Councilman Larry Klein encouraged voters not to support the measure, noting that administering the election will cost the city $200,000. Klein said he plans to talk to local civic and neighborhood groups in the coming weeks and ask them not to sign the petition.

"Firefighters would like to freeze things as they are right now," Klein said at the end of the council meeting.

"The easiest solution would be if our citizens don't sign the petitions," he added. "That's the message I'll be trying to get across."

Read more online

A list of City of Palo Alto employees' gross salaries in 2009 is posted on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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