The village fire department has spent more than $300,000 in overtime in the last 21⁄2 years, which is prompting a longtime critic to once again call for changes.
However, fire officials say that the overtime in the department’s budget, which totaled $1 million to $1.15 million the last few years, was caused by the village’s failure to properly staff the department and fill vacancies.
In 2006, total overtime expended was $137,494 with the average firefighter receiving $10,577. Total overtime for the department in 2007 was $105,519. Firefighters made an average of nearly $8,800 in overtime in 2007 to supplement their regular pay, according to figures obtained by The Daily Gazette through a Freedom of Information Law request.
The highest paid firefighter in 2007 was Thomas Wayand, who retired from the department in March of this year following a 20-year career, with total compensation of $94,683. Nine firefighters were paid at least $70,000 in 2007 with overtime included. Base salaries ranged from about $39,000 for a new firefighter to about $65,000 for a veteran. The 2007 figures include some retroactive raises firefighters received after settling their contract that year.
Through July 20 of this year, the overtime expended has been $61,199 with each firefighter making an average of $4,708.
Capt. Ken Almy, president of the Scotia Permanent Firemen’s Association, said the village got itself into this predicament by not hiring needed firefighters.
“The village needed to replace staffing and they failed to do so. They were told there was going to be overtime,” he said.
The Village Board of Trustees was going to hire three firefighters last fall but it ended up hiring only one. However, despite being short-staffed, Almy said, the department came in $35,000 under its roughly $138,000 budget for overtime in 2007.
In addition, the compensation figures do not take into account other stipends that firefighters may receive for specific duties.
Mayor Kris Kastberg agreed that the overtime figures are high because the department has not been at full staffing. The village has tried to hire new officers, but it often has to wait until the next time there is a civil service test.
The department would have been at 12 paid staff in August. However, firefighter Kevin Leonard, who joined in 2007, announced his resignation to take a position in Schenectady.
Losing people to the city is always an issue, Kastberg said. The village has tried to combat that by offering higher salaries.
BENNY cites overtime
Village Trustee Armon Benny, who has been frequently critical of the department, went further and said firefighters were abusing the overtime system. For example, he said hypothetically someone is scheduled to work Tuesday and Friday. This person is asked if he wants to work a 24-hour shift on Monday to fill in for somebody. The firefighter works Monday and then calls in sick or takes a personal day for his regular day on Tuesday. He fills in again on Thursday — a day he is not scheduled to work — and calls in sick for his scheduled shift on Friday.
This hypothetical worker has worked two twenty-four hour shifts, but has been paid 48 hours of overtime and 48 hours of straight time.
Benny, who is seeking re-election this November, said he has an issue with the fact that the union puts together the work schedule instead of the village. “Why doesn’t the employer set the schedule — not the other way around?” he said.
Kastberg acknowledged that there seemed to be an issue where some firefighters would take a sick day before a scheduled vacation day so their time off could be extended. He would like to get a new chief on board to replace Richard Kasko who can “efficiently and effectively run the fire department.”
Almy said Benny has a grudge against the fire department that has existed since he has been on the board. He said he does not believe there is any abuse of sick or personal time. “Our members are very conscious of taking time,” he said. “We police our own people. We certainly don’t want things like that.”
He said the union discourages multiple firefighters’ taking vacation at the same time.
Interim Chief Charles Keller said he believes that the situation Benny referred to of taking on sick days to extend a vacation has not happened this year at all.
Almy said, in fact, the department often does not use all of its sick and personal time. Per the contract, each firefighter receives 12 days per year, which equated to 2,592 hours in 2007 because there were only nine members in the department. Only 265 hours — about 10 percent — were used. There is a rollover option for unused time.
Each person also gets five personal days. Almy said it is not supposed to be used for vacation. The firefighters must file a written request to the chief or station officer to use the personal day unless it is an emergency.
That same year, they only used 177 hours — about 16 percent — of those eligible.
FIRE SCENE CONTROL
Another issue Benny has raised is safety concerns during a fire scene at 32 Sacandaga Road on April 8.
He said the trustees had photographs showing an off-duty Scotia fireman who was not in his turnout gear for a lengthy time. Apparently, he had been off duty and reported to the scene. He said this is a violation of village procedures. “You just don’t go to a fire scene and start working a piece of equipment even if you’re not going into the building,” he said.
He added that there was another fireman who was on disability retirement from the city of Schenectady working at the scene and wearing no gear. The board met with its labor attorney and decided not to pursue and civil charges against the department.
Capt. David Briggs said Benny’s accusation about improper fire scene procedures was directed at him. When the Sacandaga Road fire broke out, he was at Holyrood House, a senior complex, where he works part time. He responded right away to assist firefighters in the first response. He assisted with the hose line, but did not enter the building. He also called the department and someone brought his turnout gear.
Keller said it is not an uncommon practice and added that with a small department, every resource is critical. In addition, fire officials said the former Schenectady firefighter being at the scene and assisting but going into the building was a nonissue.
Almy said the quick response prevented the building from being a total loss, and the owner is in fact rebuilding.
Briggs said he believes the trustees are “micromanaging” the department and being concerned about whether the firefighters should teach a CPR class and not letting the fire chief do his job.
Deputy Mayor Joe Rizzo, who is a former volunteer in the department, said he believes that Benny did not have all the facts and figures in a recent letter to the newspaper. Benny alleged that one firefighter was on pace to make $140,000 this year. He said Benny did not mention in his letter that the fireman he referred to — Wayand — had retired and was owed money for vacation and personal time.
Almy said he does not think retention is an issue, although some members do leave to go to Schenectady because they want to do more calls. The work climate might be the real issue. “I think people get tired of the constant controversy that’s created by the Village Board. That left a bad taste in some people’s mouth,” he said.
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