Newport Beach firefighters' overtime at issue

NEWPORT BEACH — As the city debates budget cuts, some council members have called into question firefighters' overtime pay.

The fire operations division, which includes firefighters and paramedics, exceeded its overtime budget by about $1 million in each of the last two fiscal years and is on track to do the same this year. The city spent $3.6 million in firefighter and paramedic overtime last year.

Officials have been looking to trim about $8 million from the city's total budget, and they identified some maintenance workers and lifeguards, among others, to either lay off or demote to part-time.

Fire Chief Mike Morgan said he plans to control his department's overtime, but some council members aren't waiting.

"That's been high for years. I don't know, is that a management issue?" Councilwoman Leslie Daigle asked Morgan at a study session last week.

Councilman Keith Curry has requested a review of all departments' overtime policies.

"We need to revisit our staff plans and our standard operating procedures to be sure we are being the most efficient," Curry said Thursday.

Morgan said that two types of situations generate firefighter and paramedics' overtime: when someone takes a day off and when the department has a vacancy.

Most fire departments are required to keep their stations staffed with a minimum number of firefighters and paramedics at all times; Newport's number is 39 at its eight stations.

While the employees sometimes trade their days off, they aren't required to.

This leaves the city paying time-and-a-half, the standard overtime rate.

One fire captain, for instance, made $156,000 in regular hours and $44,000 in overtime during fiscal 2009-10.

Paying overtime to cover days off is common practice, said Demetrious Shaffer, president-elect of the California Fire Chiefs Assn.

"Most people don't understand why we pay overtime," Shaffer said. "You can't just not have firefighters on duty, and expect to call 911 and get firefighters to respond to your call."

In the case of vacancies, Newport has recently paid workers overtime instead of hiring after someone retires or otherwise leaves the department.

Officials defended this practice in the past, saying that it is less expensive to use overtime than to hire another firefighter with a full pension. But Morgan, who moved into the chief's role in November, doesn't agree.

"My position has always been to fill those vacancies as quickly as possible," he said this week.

Morgan is now recruiting for five of the department's nine vacant positions, and hopes to fill them by November.

One reason the Newport firefighters' overtime appears high is when it is compared to the Police Department, some council members have pointed out.

Police patrol officers' overtime dropped by 34% in fiscal 2009-10 and is on track to remain low. Meanwhile, the firefighters' overtime dropped just 3%, mostly due to salary reductions.

But the Police Department doesn't have the same minimum staffing requirements as the Fire Department.

Also, to control the costs, Police Chief Jay Johnson said he now requires his mid-level managers to justify overtime.

About 20% of the Fire Department's total salaries come from overtime, while most other Newport city departments, including the police, are well under 10%. Shaffer from the Fire Chiefs Assn. said that's normal as well.

Morgan said his goal is to reduce his department's overtime spending by $200,000 in fiscal year 2011-12.

"But the world could go to hell tomorrow and everyone could be on overtime," he said. "Who knows?"

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