Last week Kansas City officials published a list of the top 100 wage earners in the city’s fire department.
One worker — a firefighter and paramedic — earned an eye-popping $232,105. That’s more than the city manager and the fire chief. It’s more than four times the mean wage in Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
City officials blamed the outsized salary on overtime. That seems absurd: The top of the scale for a firefighter/paramedic is $6,304 per month. At that rate, an employee would need to work on average more than 94 hours a week for an entire year, at time-and-a-half for overtime, to earn a salary close to $232,000.
That’s an astonishing and alarming figure. The public’s safety should not rest in the hands of someone who works 94 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.
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Fire Chief Paul Berardi told The Star that steps are taken to prevent employees from endangering themselves or the public by working so many hours. City Hall must ensure that’s the case. There may be evidence that paramedics are particularly overstretched, and city officials should waste little time in finding out if that’s true.
But the fire department also says some employees routinely work 30 to 40 hours of overtime a week. That’s a reflection of the unusual schedule in a firehouse, where employees spend 24 hours on duty, then 48 hours off. If a firefighter picks up one or two extra days in a week, the overtime can accumulate quickly.
We don’t oppose paying city workers for their time on the job. We also support extra pay for overtime work, particularly if the scale is a result of a bargaining agreement.
But something appears deeply amiss when the department routinely racks up millions of dollars in overtime costs. This year, the fire department’s budget calls for a nearly 50 percent increase in overtime pay, to $9.5 million. Some city officials think that figure will grow. They project taxpayers will be on the hook for $12 million in overtime.
A fire department spokesman said Monday that the fire service has a shortage of personnel. The claim is questionable — the fire department has more budgeted positions today than it had 10 years ago, with little evidence the fire danger has grown dramatically.
Even if the department is understaffed, taxpayers must know if City Hall is doing everything it can to minimize unneeded personnel costs. If arcane work regulations and strange work schedules can routinely result in 40 hours of weekly overtime, those rules need a review.
The safety of the community and the city’s financial health demand a full accounting of personnel spending in the fire service.