In Everett, the top overtime earner drives a fire engine and has been paid more than $62,000 for extra hours. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

In Everett, the top overtime earner drives a fire engine and has been paid more than $62,000 for extra hours. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Mayor tries new tactic to curb fire department overtime

Stephanson says an engine won’t go into service when the only available staff would be on overtime.

EVERETT — Starting Monday, the city of Everett will take a fire engine out of commission whenever it would have to be staffed with overtime.

Mayor Ray Stephanson recently announced that decision amid news that the fire department’s overtime is running $1.5 million over budget for 2017.

A certain amount of overtime is assumed every year. But it is expensive — up to $97 an hour for some firefighters — and contentious.

Firefighter staffing in Everett has been political for years now, and there’s a pending court case. Contract negotiations are ongoing, too. At the same time, Stephanson has said the city must curb expenses or soon it will be spending more than it brings in.

Mayor-elect Cassie Franklin is aware of what the overtime numbers show, and the challenges ahead.

“This is front and center of the tasks I’m going to be digging into in my administration,” she said.

Franklin said she knows it is not just dollars and cents, but also about relationships.

As it stands, the majority of the roughly 165 union firefighters in Everett are making six-figure incomes once overtime is added. In all, 37 firefighters have made more than $30,000 each in overtime so far this year, on top of their salaries, according to a data analysis by The Daily Herald. The median base salary of that group is upwards of $90,000.

Some firefighters are racking up the equivalent of weeks, even months, of overtime hours. Three this year already have each logged the equivalent of more than 100 additional work days, data show.

In Everett, the top overtime earner drives a fire engine and has been paid more than $62,000 for extra hours on top of his nearly $103,000 base salary.

That’s nearly as much as Gov. Jay Inslee is paid and more than the salary of the state attorney general.

The firefighters union, Local 46, says the overtime costs are the result of poor planning and mismanagement. The union says many of the problems could be solved by adding staff.

“They’re saying look at all this overtime, but they created this overtime,” union president Paul Gagnon said. “They caused this.”

The numbers

The Everett Fire Department is budgeted at $29.7 million for 2017. The budget sets aside $885,138 for overtime this year and a similar amount for 2018.

As of Nov. 28, the department had spent $2.3 million on overtime. That’s nearly a million dollars more than last year.

Yet overtime has surpassed $885,138 every year since 2014. Since 2004, it has exceeded budgeted levels more often than not.

“We don’t control it,” Gagnon said. “They can either staff it with full-time employees or staff it with overtime. Our people are being mandated to work overtime.”

The staffing question is tricky. Attorneys representing the union and the city have been sparring over who gets to decide what constitutes minimum staffing.

A state labor-management board has said the city must negotiate staffing levels with firefighters as part of the labor contract. The city is appealing the ruling, which Stephanson recently said would be “devastating to trying to control any kind of budget.”

Multiple factors

The Engine 3 proposal came up at the Nov. 29 meeting of the City Council budget committee.

About two-thirds of the department’s overtime hours go to “man the rigs every day and to perform our job,” Fire Chief Tim Key said.

The rest mostly is training required by law, policy or contract. The union says that kind of overtime is expected every year, and shouldn’t be presented as a surprise. Some hours also are accrued fighting wildfires in other places, and the city gets reimbursed for that.

The ranks most likely to draw overtime were firefighter, firefighter/driver and fire captain, data show.

The fire department had a hiring freeze from 2011-2015. That means there are fewer less-experienced firefighters who are vying to become a driver or captain. Both jobs have tenure requirements, and the newest employees aren’t there yet.

The pool of people who are trained and ready “is just not enough to fill those roles without using overtime,” Key said.

The union says the hiring freeze is a factor but also alleges that it has to do with how promotional testing is organized. Gagnon disagrees with how the numbers were calculated for the budget committee. Missing was a comparison of the 2018 budgets for the police and fire departments, he said.

It takes three people to staff a fire engine, including a driver and a captain. Everett has seven engines, and Engine 3 is based on Rucker Avenue. It goes out on 3,000 calls a year, according to the union. The firefighters say standing it down would create a public safety risk.

Something similar has been done before. From early 2012 until February 2017, Engine 3 didn’t roll whenever it would have been staffed with overtime.

Since then, overtime on Engine 3 has cost $283,375.

Meanwhile, Gagnon says the city is violating state law by not producing annual reports of emergency response times. He believes those reports are necessary for the current discussion.

The city says it had other priorities. It last created the report in 2014 and plans to do so again in 2018.

Types of rigs

Increasing 911 call volumes are a challenge for every local fire department. They are largely driven by medical needs, not fires.

Stephanson says Everett should start sending SUVs to situations that aren’t life-and-death. A sport utility vehicle doesn’t need a captain and a driver. That idea hasn’t been implemented, but “that’s the direction I’ve asked the chief to go in,” he said.

The union insists the solution is more firefighters, not a change in vehicles.

“The city has never come to ask to negotiate anything like that,” Gagnon said.

Key said it has been brought up, but informally. The department can change its vehicle line-up, but it should keep the labor perspective in mind, given the potential implications of the pending court case, he said.

In Stephanson’s final days as mayor, he has started a weekly review of 911 calls to see how many vehicles were sent and at what cost. Key said he expects the data will show too many crews and vehicles are rolling.

Franklin has been paying attention.

“It’s a deployment discussion that needs to happen with management as well as the firefighters,” she said. “We recognize there is a relationship to rebuild there.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; Twitter: @rikkiking.

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