City still ablaze with OT

first_img AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREOregon Ducks football players get stuck on Disney ride during Rose Bowl eventThe ballooning overtime costs for fire and city workers come as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seeks to rein in city spending. At the same time, lucrative health and pension plans have spiraled so high that officials say it’s cheaper to pay time and a half to existing workers than hire new ones. “It goes right back to the richness of these plans and whether the city can even afford them,” said David Fleming, a former Fire Commission president who now sits on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. “We just can’t keep ignoring the elephant in the room.” Fleming said pension structures based on a city worker’s highest salary year are an incentive for workers to use OT to bump up their annual pay. “No wonder they put in so much overtime … and they may end up living 20 to 30 years. We can’t ignore it any longer,” he said. Despite two years of trying to trim lucrative overtime pay for city firefighters, more than a dozen pulled in $100,000, or more, in OT last year, a Daily News analysis shows. Fifteen of the 17 firefighters earned more in overtime pay than their base salaries, and two made more than $175,000 in OT that bumped their gross pay to more than $268,000 – about $5,000 more than their boss, Chief William Bamattre. With base pay, OT and other pay and bonuses, firefighters and their bosses accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 100 city workers who earned more than $200,000 last year, records show. Twenty-three harbor employees, mainly port pilots, also topped $200,000 as the city’s 100 top-earning workers amassed $21.8 million in pay – $5.72 million of that in overtime. But Bamattre and other city officials defend the firefighter OT, saying it’s critical to ensuring that all stations are staffed 24-7. The department has 3,562 sworn employees but roughly 1,045 daily responders, meaning it essentially needs to schedule nearly 250 firefighters and paramedics at time-and-a-half each day to staff stations around-the-clock, Bamattre said. That – combined with an overall 7 percent increase in staffing and a 9 percent increase in salaries – has bumped overtime for “constant staffing” up 12 percent, from a budgeted $79 million in fiscal 2003 to $89 million in fiscal 2006. Total fire overtime, including discretionary OT, has jumped from a budgeted $94 million three years ago, with actual spending of $100 million, to $104 million this year, with year-to-date spending at $93 million with about two months to go. But Bamattre said the department has reached a “break-off” point at which it is becoming more cost efficient to hire new employees than to pay overtime. He said up to 250 people are being hired each year – the maximum the department can train through its “drill towers” – but eventually additional personnel will be needed to create a pool of 100 firefighters to fill in vacancies and reduce OT. “My belief is it would be cheaper to hire new employees,” Bamattre said. Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, said the decision to pay firefighters overtime has been the city’s, based on cost considerations. “It’s their system, not ours,” McOsker said. “If they want to reduce overtime, they need to hire more firefighters, and that’s fine with us. It’s their choice, not ours. … We didn’t negotiate any amount. “They have three choices: Hire lots more firefighters, … not provide (as many) services, or use overtime. It’s completely their choice.” Councilman Dennis Zine, chairman of the personnel committee, said that while the OT strains the city’s general fund, it’s a “necessary evil” to ensure public safety. “It’s a tremendous amount of money,” said Zine, a retired Los Angeles Police Department sergeant. “What needs to be done is to hire additional personnel so we don’t stretch those resources to the maximum … to provide public safety.” But OT for firefighters is not the only pay issue straining the city. Overtime for all city employees in the last six months of last year hovered at $200 million, including $140 million for sworn and civilian workers and $51 million for Department of Water and Power employees whose general manager, Ron Deaton, doesn’t get OT but is still the highest-paid city worker at $316,000 a year. In those same six months, sworn firefighters racked up $64.6 million in OT, accounting for nearly 30 percent of their $220 million in total salaries, according to City Administrative Office records. Sworn police pulled down $46.9 million in OT, about 10.5 percent of their $446 million in salaries. Meanwhile, civilian workers got $28.4 million in OT, or 3.8 percent of their $742 million in salaries, according to city records. The city’s top civilian, non-DWP wage earner is Patrick Lynch, general manager of the Los Angeles Coliseum, who made $274,425 last year – $149,425 in regular pay and $125,000 in other pay including bonuses, vacation and sick pay and retroactive pay. Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton made $263,437. Port pilots – the second-largest group of city employees earning more than $200,000 annually – work at the nation’s busiest container port 24-7 with no breaks for holidays or weekends, said Capt. James Morgan, pilot service manager. “Port pilots are very specialized and skilled individuals who work a very difficult job,” Morgan said. “They jump from a small boat to a Jacob’s ladder (on) huge container, tanker or cruise ships and pilot the ships to their docking area. … “Ship arrivals at the port often spike, quickly outnumbering the pilots on hand. When this happens, off-duty pilots are called in on overtime to handle the ships. Overall, this method of utilizing port pilots on overtime to handle peak traffic periods has proven very cost effective in keeping the commerce of the port flowing,” Morgan said. OT costs on the Fire Department side, however, raised concern at the City Council in 2004, when council members voted to hire as many as 90 firefighters that June to make the 2003-04 recruit class one of the largest in recent history. That came after the Daily News revealed that more than 23 percent of the department’s payroll was estimated to go toward overtime to maintain staffing when firefighters were sick or on vacation. In fiscal 2002-03, seven firefighters were paid $100,000 or more in overtime and 223 others picked up $50,000 or more working extra shifts. Four firefighters earned more than $200,000 in salary and overtime that year. County firefighters also have made similar amounts of overtime, with the Daily News reporting that in 2002-03, more than 940 county firefighters boosted their salaries by more than 50 percent with overtime. While OT has soared since then for the city Fire Department, two new recruit “drill tower” classes also are due to graduate later this year, adding about 100 entry-level firefighters to the ranks. Fire Capt.-Paramedic William Wells said last year OT was driven by firefighters responding to emergencies like the hurricanes on the Gulf Coast and brushfires out of town, as well as vacancies that resulted from not having a recruit class for an entire year. He said that while some firefighters work an “exorbitant” number of hours, it is safe and it is an option in a system where those with the least OT get the first chance to work extra shifts. Often, the most OT is accrued at stations with the least demand so that those working the longest hours don’t have a heavy response load, Wells said. “It has been determined to be safe as to the number of hours; they are part of a team; they are constantly monitored; they have beds and rest,” Wells said. “It’s not like a truck driver who’s always on the road … or a pilot. These are employees who work in spurts.” Wells said there are advantages to having experienced people available to respond in emergencies. But costs also have risen as a result of adding a 10th, “fixed” person to task force stations – those with three fire apparatus – as well as ambulances. City Administrative Officer Bill Fujioka said there is a “breaking point” where it is no longer cheaper to pay OT at time-and-half versus hiring regular employees with benefits and other costs. He said more classes and hiring needs to be done when firefighters start making so much OT. And he noted that there are three Fire Department recruiting classes in next year’s budget. But, he said more is needed. “We should have a relief platoon that’s not assigned to a particular station, then when someone takes a day off … it’s on straight time, not overtime.” [email protected] (818) 713-3731160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more