March 28, 2013

Overtime 'solution' raises new questions in Portland

Figures showing that new firefighter jobs could be costlier than paying $1.8 million in OT mystify city councilors.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Adding nearly 40 firefighters to the Portland Fire Department, as proposed in a consultant's study, could cost more than the $1.8 million in overtime spending that the new jobs would offset.

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A debate has arisen over whether hiring 40 firefighters – as a consultant recommended – would save the city the $1.8 million it spent on overtime in 2012, or actually cost it more.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

A debate has arisen over whether hiring 40 firefighters would save the city the $1.8 million it spent on overtime last year, or actually cost it more.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

That's making some city councilors skeptical about the study.

"You can be sure all of us are going to be zeroed in on that one," said Councilor Cheryl Leeman. "I believe (the consultant) certainly needs to explain that."

Maryland-based Public Safety Solutions Inc. was paid $39,000 for a comprehensive review of the department, partly to rein in overtime costs, which have topped $1.2 million in each of the last eight years.

Its report, released Wednesday, includes nearly 170 recommendations, including 13 to reduce overtime. The City Council will review the report Monday with Leslie Adams, president of Public Safety Solutions.

Among the consultant's suggestions to reduce overtime is a formula to meet minimum staffing levels for the department's apparatus. That would call for 269 people -- about 40 more than the department now has.

Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria said Thursday that he will not comment on specific recommendations until the report is publicly presented to the council.

LaMoria, who received a draft of the report on March 18, said he was still working his way through the 523-page document. He compared it to a train that will take the department from where it is today to where it should be in the future.

"It allows me to lay the tracks in the right direction," LaMoria said. "Now, my job is to be the engineer of that train to make sure we get on board and we make all our stops at a pace we can manage."

Most city councilors who were contacted Thursday had not reviewed the report and did not want to comment on its recommendations.

Councilor Edward Suslovic, who leads the council's Public Safety Committee and was a lead advocate for the study, said the recommendation to add staffing to a department that is already among the largest for the population it serves, regionally if not nationally, isn't explained adequately.

The consultant must justify the need for the current staffing before recommending hiring more people, he said.

"That, to me, is the central question," said Suslovic, who said he was still reading the report. "In my first read of the report, I was not able to find an answer to that question clearly."

City Councilor John Coyne, however, said he was intrigued by the staffing recommendation, which he said he would support if it would decrease overtime and create a healthier force.

"If hiring more guys leads to a healthier workload for these guys, that's a win-win," Coyne said. "It will be interesting to see how that works out financially."

The consultant suggests a staffing formula that would lead to the hiring of nearly 40 firefighters because it would increase staffing for each piece of equipment.

For example, only three Portland firefighters now staff an engine, while the industry standard is four per engine.

Adding firefighters and implementing suggestions that include better methods for tracking sick leave and punishing abuse could reduce overtime expenses by as much as 80 percent, according to the report.

However, the consultant says the city should analyze the costs and benefits of increasing staffing and the actual costs for overtime, which last year exceeded $1.8 million.

Hiring an additional 40 firefighters would cost at least $1.25 million, not including benefits.

In budgeting for public safety employees, 30 percent is added to the salaries to account for benefits, said city Finance Director Ellen Sanborn. That puts the minimum cost at $1.88 million a year.

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Portland firefighters

Should Portland hire more firefighters?

Yes

No

View Results