The amount of overtime being paid to Sacramento city firefighters is startling, to say the least.
In each of the last four fiscal years, Fire Department overtime expenses have been more than double the amount budgeted, exceeding $9 million in 2012-13. The previous year, some firefighters racked up more than 1,000 hours of OT, on top of 2,912 hours of regular and leave time. Two topped 2,000 hours – a full year’s work for most people – and boosted their pay by about $90,000.
City Auditor Jorge Oseguera wants to know whether public safety is put at risk by firefighters working such long hours, whether there are problems in how overtime is being given out, and whether it would be better for taxpayers to pay salaries and benefits for additional firefighters.
Those are all reasonable questions. In March, Oseguera plans to ask the City Council for permission to find the answers. Council members should give the go-ahead for the closer examination, which is long overdue.
There may be a reasonable explanation. Interim Fire Chief Dan Haverty told council members last week that a major cause for the overtime is the number of vacant positions, some of which are about to be filled.
The department already has agreed to take one important step called for by the auditor – to tighten up requirements for supervisors to formally approve overtime.
The overtime issue, part of a broader review of city employees’ supplemental pay, refocuses attention on the fact that the Fire Department is now mostly an ambulance service. Medical emergencies make up more than 80 percent of Fire Department calls. Two years ago, the city was told it could save $3.3 million a year by replacing one of two firefighter-paramedics in ambulances with civilian emergency medical technicians, as other cities have done.
It is beyond disappointing that more progress has not been made on that recommendation. It makes you wonder, if the upcoming audit calls for significant changes, whether council members will have the stomach to take on one of the city’s most politically powerful unions. The firefighters local was the biggest funder of Measure U, the half-cent sales tax hike approved by voters in November 2012. The windfall has helped reinforce the ranks of firefighters and police officers and eased the city’s budget crunch.
Still, the city must seek every way possible to deliver services as cost-effectively as possible, even if the unions don’t like it.