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Is it climate change or mismanagement that's behind higher overtime costs at the L.A. County Fire Department?

Is it climate change or mismanagement that's behind higher overtime costs at the L.A. County Fire Department?
Los Angeles County fire crews battle a brush fire near Malibu on May 19, 2017. (KTLA)

Los Angeles County officials have been quietly talking among themselves about possibly asking voters to approve a supplemental fire protection tax, perhaps on the 2020 ballot. So The Times’ story Sunday about inordinate overtime at the $1-billion-a-year L.A. County Fire Department ought to catch every resident’s attention.

The figures are stunning. Overtime has risen 36% over the last five years, according to The Times’ analysis, and now accounts for about a third of the average employee’s pay. More than 640 workers, or about one-seventh of the department’s roughly 4,600 employees, were paid more than $100,000 in overtime in 2017.

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It is plausible that the numbers merely reflect California’s lengthening fire season and the department’s effort to keep pace with record-setting disasters. Although nearly a decade has elapsed since the Station fire, the largest wildfire in county history, county firefighters have spent considerable time assisting other parts of the state with catastrophes like this year’s Mendocino Complex fire. The massive Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties broke out in December and wasn’t completely extinguished until June.

County workers are also dispatched to help other regions cope with hurricanes and flooding. Meanwhile, the department is kept busy at home managing blazes in L.A.’s frequently tinder-dry mountains and hillsides to ensure that they don’t become deadly conflagrations. A hotter, drier climate is likely to increase the threat of destruction and require an increased level of prevention and response.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s just as likely that the Fire Department needs to tighten its management. The county should be expected to squeeze the best work from its payroll and to keep a close watch on scheduling and hiring. Firefighters shouldn’t be worked to death, even if they relish the multiple-day work shifts and the time-and-half overtime pay.

The payroll record for a fire captain at the Compton station may be one signal that things are amiss. He is recorded as having worked 7,449 hours in 2017, for $322,000 in overtime in addition to his $126,000 base salary. That averages out at six 24-hour shifts every week of the year. There’s surely more to that story. We’re anxious to hear it.

A report on Fire Department overtime is due in December from the county auditor-controller, and it may answer some basic questions.

Still, the county’s structure is part of the problem here. In the city of L.A., an independently elected controller has a political incentive to root out inefficiencies and abuses even if the mayor and City Council would prefer to keep them under wraps. The city controller hasn’t always used that power effectively, but he has it. There is no such check or balance at the county, where the auditor-controller works for the Board of Supervisors and lacks the political independence the city controller enjoys.

Checks and balances are missing in other aspects of county governance as well. If the Board of Supervisors does opt to seek a fire protection tax, county officials who report to the board will write the title and summary of the ballot measure, as well as the arguments in favor. That’s different from the state, for example, where the independently elected attorney general and the legislative analyst have prominent roles. The lack of independent oversight and input contributes to the sneaking suspicion that the supervisors may ask for taxes they don’t need.

That’s a shame, because the Board of Supervisors has gone to voters with a series of very worthy tax measures. Supervisor Hilda Solis, for example, took the lead in shaping a parks tax in 2016 to replace two expiring taxes. That same year, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas spearheaded Measure HHH, which responds to the region’s homelessness crisis with funding for mental health and housing. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl is leading the effort on Measure W, which would begin the process of replumbing the county so that storm water is recaptured and reused rather than shunted out to sea along with urban pollutants. All three measures, while not cheap, are important to the quality of life of county residents.

Supervisor Janice Hahn is leading the effort to consider a fire protection tax, and it may be necessary and appropriate for the county, given the warming climate and the horrendous costs of natural disasters.

But before asking, the county must satisfy not just itself but its residents, taxpayers and voters that the Fire Department is being run as efficiently and effectively as possible. We’re not there now.

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