Overtime spending by Portland municipal departments increased by more than $400,000 in 2015 – an 8 percent one-year jump – but city officials say a new fire department labor agreement could help reverse the growing costs.

The Portland City Council will be asked Monday to approve a new contract with firefighters that includes a union concession aimed at what has become an annual budgeting concern for the city.

If the contract is approved as expected, firefighters will work the first 12 hours of overtime at straight pay instead of time-and-a-half pay, which is estimated to save the city $350,000 a year. The concession, combined with filling vacant positions in the fire department to reduce the need for overtime, could have a big impact on the overall city budget because of the department’s key role in the growth of overtime spending.

Fire department overtime pay has increased nearly 31 percent in the past two years, from $1.3 million in 2013 to $1.7 million in 2015. Officials say that growth is primarily because of a hiring freeze that kept vacant positions unfilled and required employees to take on more hours. The fire department overtime contributed to a 15 percent increase in overall municipal overtime during the same period, from $4.7 million to $5.4 million.

According to salary information provided by the city, 34 municipal employees took home more than $20,000 each last year in overtime. Twenty-one of them were firefighters. Others included nurses at the Barron Center and police officers.

The contract going to the City Council on Monday covers 220 Portland firefighters represented by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 740. The entire department has about 250 employees.

In exchange for firefighters agreeing to forgo overtime pay for the first 12 hours beyond a regular workweek, the city agreed to tweak its hiring process to fill vacant positions more quickly. It also agreed to allow more people to be trained to fill in vacant shifts. Both changes would further reduce overtime.

President Chris Thomson said his union’s concession will reduce the city’s costs, allowing it to keep a heavy rescue unit in service for the rest of the budget year, which ends June 30. That unit, which was scheduled for elimination, has specialized equipment – to extract people from vehicles, for example.

“Our core concern is to keep these trucks running,” Thomson said. “We have 17,000 calls (a year) to answer. For us, it’s not just a number; it’s people.”

CONCESSION, COST-OF-LIVING RAISES

Firefighters have been working without a contract since December 2013. After two years of negotiations failed to produce an agreement, the two sides met in mediation last summer. The resulting compromise was rejected by firefighters in November, but a change in city and union leadership led to an agreement that was supported by more than 90 percent of the union, officials said.

The contract includes cost-of-living raises of 1 percent to 1.5 percent every six months going back to January 2014 and extending through this year, as well as a yet-to-be determined COLA increase next year.

Mayor Ethan Strimling, whose campaign last year was endorsed by Local 740, commended the union for making a key concession on overtime.

“I really appreciate the firefighters’ willingness to work so much overtime, without getting paid a higher rate. As they do every day, they sacrificed themselves by putting city residents ahead of their own self-interest,” Strimling said.

City Manager Jon Jennings attributed the fire department’s rising overtime costs in the past year to a hiring freeze imposed in late 2014 because of concerns about General Assistance spending. He hopes that the concessions, as well as filling 12 vacant positions and streamlining the hiring process, will help the city rein in overtime costs.

OVERTIME BUDGET ALREADY DEPLETED

Jennings said the city has already spent its entire fire department overtime budget of nearly $1.1 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30. He is asking the council to adopt the contract as an emergency measure, so the city can begin saving an anticipated $270,000 for this current fiscal year.

“Excessive overtime, at least to me, has been the result of being understaffed in critical areas,” Jennings said. “From my perspective, it is better to be fully staffed.”

Vacant positions can have a bigger impact in the fire department than other city operations because it has minimum staffing requirements for operating its equipment. At least three firefighters are needed to staff a firetruck, meaning if someone calls in sick or is hurt on the job, either someone has to work overtime to fill the position or the truck needs to be taken out of service, Thomson said.

The average fire department employee earned about $6,900 in overtime in 2015, according to city payroll records.

Although some firefighters welcome overtime shifts as a way to make more money, Thomson said firefighters also were forced involuntarily to work overtime at least 56 times last year.

“There is a tipping point where there is too much overtime,” he said. “When you start getting ‘forces,’ you’ve gone over it.”

The top overtime earner in all municipal departments was firefighter and emergency medical technician Jon Belanger, who nearly doubled his $54,200 salary by earning an additional $52,000 in overtime in 2015.

OT GUIDANCE FOR MUNICIPALITIES

Thomson said firefighters are mistakenly blamed for racking up overtime by swapping shifts to get extra hours. When shifts are swapped, it actually saves the city money, he said, because firefighters cannot receive overtime for the additional hours worked in those situations.

The second and third top overtime earners were nurses: Olga Davydova earned nearly $46,000 in overtime on top of her $53,000 salary, and Teresa Koontz earned nearly $45,700 in overtime on top of her $61,500 salary.

Municipal overtime accounted for 7 percent of the city’s overall payroll spending of $74.8 million in 2015.

Neither the Maine Municipal Association, an advocacy group for Maine towns, nor the International Association of City Managers, has clear guidelines about how much overtime is too much.

However, Robert Bland, author of the latter group’s publication “A Budgeting Guide for Local Governments,” said he advises managers to look at longer trends in overtime, rather than focusing on spikes that could be the result of a special event or catastrophe.

“A long-term and steady increase in OT poses more serious problems,” Bland said in an email. “Once the ‘Pandora’s Box’ of OT is opened, employees begin to expect the OT opportunity and become financially dependent” on it as a way to supplement base salaries.

Jennings said looking to get a handle on overtime is one of his objectives for next year’s budget, which is currently being drafted.

“We have gone short-staffed at times, which of course causes some of the overtime issues,” he said. “There will always be some level of overtime.”