Even after years of scrutiny, overtime pay in the Sacramento Fire Department still accounts for millions of dollars each year in the city’s budget – and now the practice has the attention of the city auditor.
An examination by City Auditor Jorge Oseguera found that fire personnel racked up nearly $7 million in overtime pay in 2012. Five firefighters – including four employees whose job duty involves driving Fire Department rigs to emergencies – worked more than 1,500 hours of overtime that year, the audit found.
Those findings were part of an audit conducted by Oseguera on supplemental pay received by city workers in all departments, including allowances for parking and incentives given to employees who earned advanced degrees. The auditor presented the examination Tuesday night to the City Council.
Oseguera said there were enough issues raised by the audit that he is recommending an examination that would focus solely on Fire Department overtime. If that plan is approved by the City Council in March, Oseguera said he could begin the audit this summer.
Overtime pay has been a consistent issue of concern at City Hall, especially as the city dealt with historic budget deficits in recent years. A Bee investigation in 2008 found the Fire Department paid out $5.6 million in overtime to its employees in 2007 and that 10 firefighters had received more than $53,000 in overtime pay that year.
As in years past, some firefighters worked an average of more than 80 hours a week in 2012, according to the audit. One firefighter worked 2,042 hours of overtime in 2012 – on top of 2,900 hours of regular work – collecting $94,866 in extra pay, according to the audit. A fire engineer filed for 2,043 hours of overtime worth $89,110.
Oseguera said the overtime figures – a total of more than 150,000 hours of extra time worked by Fire Department employees – “raise a number of questions.” He said he wants to examine whether there are safety issues raised by the heavy workloads of some firefighters and “whether there are potential issues regarding how the overtime is being distributed.”
“We can dig a little deeper into some of these individuals that receive the highest amount and see if there are patterns and concerns,” he said.
Fire officials said low staffing levels within the department are the main culprit for the high overtime tab.
Interim Fire Chief Dan Haverty said the department has 83 vacant positions. Funding generated by a voter-approved increase in the sales tax has funded 18 recent additions to the department, with 21 more scheduled to join the ranks at the end of April.
“We’re trying to rebuild our force,” Haverty said.
Oseguera said he wants to examine in his proposed upcoming audit whether granting overtime pay to existing fire personnel is more cost-effective than funding the salaries and benefits for new firefighters.
With the staffing numbers still low, Haverty said overtime costs continue to rise. He said the tab for the current fiscal year is higher at this point than it was last year.
He also told the City Council that department overtime pay has hovered above $6.7 million every fiscal year since 2010. In the 2012-13 fiscal year, the city funded $9 million in fire overtime pay, the chief said.
Haverty and city fire union Vice President Ryan Henry said the department has adequate safeguards in place to ensure that firefighters working long hours do not put the public – or themselves – in danger. Fire personnel can only work 72 hours straight and a busy ambulance crew, for example, may respond to fewer than 20 calls in a 24-hour period, Haverty said.
“If we have someone who hasn’t rested in three days, we’re not going to allow that person to continue working,” Henry said.
Haverty said $850,000 of the overtime pay was reimbursed to the city by state officials for the use of firefighters on wildfire “strike teams.” Another $620,000 was given to fire personnel under a federal mandate that requires the city to pay overtime to every firefighter who works more than 53 hours a week; city firefighters work a regular schedule of 56 hours a week.
Fire officials said their overtime pay is in line with other departments around the state and region. Haverty said a report by an outside auditor hired by the city in 2009 showed the percentage of the Sacramento Fire Department’s budget spent on overtime was lower than some other departments, including Long Beach and the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District.