Scotia Trustee Armon Benny seems to have made a political career out of bashing his village’s fire department, and this election season is no exception.
His latest beef, about excessive overtime, seems overblown given that the department is chronically understaffed: What it has spent on overtime — roughly $300,000 over the last two and one-half years — it saved by not having to pay the salaries and benefits of additional firefighters that it acknowledged needing.
Moreover, the department was actually $35,000 under its $138,000 OT budget last year, according to union president Capt. Ken Almy, and as of this July 20 had rung up only $61,000 worth of OT for 2008. So in terms of the department budget, at least, overtime doesn’t seem to be quite the problem Benny makes it out to be.
But there does appear to be something to Benny’s claim that the department’s work rules enable firefighters who are so inclined to manipulate the system to qualify for overtime pay when they’ve put in no more than a normal workweek. He uses the hypothetical example of the firefighter whose two regular 24-hour shifts for the week fall on Tuesdays and Fridays; if the firefighter fills in for absent colleagues on Monday and Thursday, then calls in sick or takes personal days for his two regular days, he qualifies for two days of overtime pay — without actually working more than 48 hours — as well as his regular pay. That’s wrong, and while it doesn’t appear to happen very often — department members take, on average, only 10 percent of their entitled 12 sick days per year, 16 percent of their five personal days, and claim less than $10,000 per year in overtime — the work rules could probably be tweaked to ensure that it never does: no OT pay unless the number of hours actually worked exceeds 48.
Much larger questions hanging over the department’s head these days include its contract with Glenville Fire District No. 4: Because the village’s price for the service keeps rising ($329,000 currently), the town is thinking about ending its longtime arrangement and hooking up with the Thomas Corners and Beukendaal districts. That would create a budget hole for the village so large, says Mayor Kris Kastberg, that a 10 percent tax hike would be necessary.
There’s also the issue of a new chief: Richard Kasko resigned in June, and village officials want to hire an outsider to take over — a good idea. But the state Civil Service Commission may not let it. (It should.)
Thus while Benny can hardly be criticized for taking a hard line on department spending, it seems as if his overtime issue is the least of the department’s worries.