An accounting firm’s new report confirms what Kansas City officials already knew through the budgeting process — firefighter overtime is a huge expense, and a few individuals rake in an oversized share of those wages.
But the report from BKD, released publicly on Wednesday, doesn’t offer a magic cure for the millions of dollars in overtime that Kansas City government shells out annually to the Fire Department. It also notes that many other cities struggle with the same problem.
The Kansas City Star reported in March that a Kansas City firefighter/paramedic earned $232,105 in 2016, more than the city manager, mayor and fire chief. Four other fire employees earned between $151,000 and $174,000, largely due to big overtime.
The compensation became a topic as the City Council worked to approve a new budget that took effect May 1, including a boost in projected Fire Department overtime payments from $6.5 million to $9.5 million.
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The Star has posted a searchable database of city salaries.
City Councilman Scott Wagner, who chairs the finance committee, said the city must get a better handle on its firefighter overtime costs, and started Wednesday with a committee discussion about the BKD report, which analyzed fire overtime data from May 1, 2011, through May 31, 2016.
“I think this is the budget concern, because without that predictability, it impacts everything else,” Wagner said, adding that when the Fire Department budget breaks the bank, everything else has to be cut. “When people are asking, ‘Why is there less to do some other things?’ the number that was growing was firefighter overtime.”
Fire Chief Paul Berardi acknowledged overtime remains a major concern and said it was exacerbated in recent years by paramedic vacancies, plus sick leave and injury time associated with some large fires.
He said the department has recently hired 31 paramedics, with nine more starting soon, and that should help. He said other management solutions are being studied.
“This is a really good starting point,” Berardi said of the BKD analysis.
Among BKD’s key findings:
▪ Of the top 10 overtime earners, four were EMTs, four were paramedics, one was a fire captain and another was a firefighter. The same employees showed up consistently with high overtime. One employee, firefighter/paramedic John Morrow, was the top overtime earner for all years, averaging over 2,000 overtime hours for each year, with a high of 3,240 in fiscal year 2016. Morrow worked 67 percent more overtime hours than the next closest employee.
The report raised concerns about that astonishing workload, saying, “The levels of overtime worked by the Fire Department’s top overtime earners are likely well outside the recommended limits for those involved in such public safety work.”
Berardi agreed that workload “is not optimal no matter what,” but said Morrow, as a firefighter and paramedic, works 24-hour shifts that include downtime for sleep. He said all fire employees work hard, but even with paramedics, the employees spend one-third or less of their time actually responding to emergency calls.
He said the department does place restrictions on ambulance workers performing consecutive shifts to guard against fatigue that could affect medical care.
▪ Overtime went up in May, October and December, and especially during special events such as the World Series in 2014 and 2015. Saturday was by far the biggest day for overtime, making up 22 percent of overtime hours during the study period.
▪ Fire Department overtime has spiked considerably since city government absorbed the MAST ambulance system in 2010. It rose by 156 percent, from 124,167 hours in 2012 to 317,260 hours in 2016.
▪ The overtime has consistently exceeded budgeted amounts, as Wagner complained. While the study only went through 2016, finance officials said the problem was even more severe in 2017. They budgeted $6.5 million for overtime, but actual costs came in at $16 million. In the budget that started May 1, fire overtime was increased to $9.5 million, but that still may not be enough.
“Without some accurate prediction, it throws everything off,” Wagner said.
The rate of overtime increases was rising at a much faster rate than emergency calls. Overtime hours, as a share of all hours, substantially increased from 3.8 percent in 2012 to 8.6 percent in 2016.
“If the growth in overtime is not at least roughly correlated with the growth in emergency calls over the long term, that may invite considerations as to whether staffing reflects actual operational requirements,” the consultants wrote.
▪ There was significant variation between battalions and their respective overtime spikes. The analysts said that “may represent outcomes in differing management approaches.”
For example, Battalion 107 went from being in the “middle of the pack” to accruing the most overtime in fiscal 2015 and 2016, while Battalion 102 moved from near the middle to the lowest overtime in 2016. The report suggested studying whether certain staffing practices could be adopted elsewhere.
But Berardi attributed those overtime variations more to the size and location of each battalion. Battalion 107 is south of 99th and Holmes and has more ambulances, stations and companies than Battalion 102, which is at 16th and Locust.
▪ Some aspects of the city’s collective bargaining agreement exacerbate overtime. For example, the pay structure says that off-duty members who do medical standby, fire guard or honor guard duties are paid a minimum of four hours at time-and-a-half pay. If they work for just an hour, they’re paid an additional three hours overtime.
In addition, any member called back to work after leaving a regular shift is compensated for at least four hours of work at time-and-a-half, regardless of how many hours they work.
There’s also overtime paid that is not required in current bargaining agreement. Fire employees at the airport are paid for one hour at time-and-a-half for the 20 minutes at the start and end of their shift due to the required escort across the tarmac.
Fire overtime is not just a financial problem in Kansas City. The report said it’s been raised as a major concern within the past five years in many communities, including St. Paul, Minn.; Portland, Maine; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and Scottsdale, Ariz., with different strategies employed to address the issue. Some cities including Dallas, Scottsdale and Cleveland had reduced overtime.
Berardi said additional paramedic hires, plus new performance management studies, should help the department hold down costs. He also said the department is trying to get a handle on workers’ compensation cases, which add to overtime through sick leave and injury time away from work. “It’s getting better but still has an impact,” he said.
Among the recommendations for improvements:
▪ Reviewing the overall staffing model and adjusting away from constant staffing to a more flexible approach that addresses peak demand times.
▪ Setting overtime limits per employee, as Scottsdale has done, to minimize fatigue and other issues associated with an excessive workload.
Search the database to find out how much city employees made in 2016: