Kansas City taxpayers saw more evidence this week that they are paying far more than expected for overtime costs in the fire department.
The latest information comes from BKD, an accounting firm that studied the department’s pay records since 2011. Its detailed findings were not a surprise:
▪ The department routinely spends more on overtime than planned.
▪ Overtime is increasing faster than emergency calls.
▪ Some employees “are accruing a greatly disproportionate share of overtime.”
This last problem has been well-reported by The Star, and the fault does not lie with individual firefighters. No one in Kansas City should object to any employee receiving the pay to which he or she is entitled.
But overtime that busts city budgets year after year reflects poorly on managers and administrators and limits spending for other important functions. The new city budget increases projected fire department overtime spending to $9.5 million.
That figure suggests a real problem with public safety: If paramedics and firefighters spend so much time on duty that they can double or triple their base salaries, they may be too tired to perform their jobs well.
What can be done?
Firefighters suggest the answer is simple: Hire more people. One official with Local 42, the firefighters’ union, said hiring an additional 125 firefighters and medical technicians might be cheaper than paying millions of dollars in overtime to the existing workforce.
It’s unclear whether that’s true. The fire service and the City Council should develop comparisons for public review.
But there are also steps outlined in the BKD study that the fire department could take now to reduce overtime costs:
▪ The department could put more men and women on duty during peak response times and fewer on the job during traditionally slower days.
▪ It could transfer duties to civilian employees, leaving more money for firefighting and emergency response.
▪ Emergency responders could use smaller vehicles instead of ambulances for low-level medical calls. Those vehicles would have fewer personnel.
▪ The department could re-examine work rules embedded in the collective bargaining agreement, looking for efficiencies and savings. It needs to do a better job to make sure overtime pay is credited correctly.
▪ Fire officials can use new digital tools to monitor overtime more closely, and respond quickly to personnel problems.
To their credit, the fire service and the firefighters’ union appear open to discussions about these topics.
Firefighters are notoriously protective of their work environments and resistant to change. But some members of the fire service in Kansas City understand the public’s patience with excessive overtime costs may soon run out.
Violent crime remains a significant concern. Eventually, some taxpayers will ask why more isn’t spent for police services and less on overtime for firefighters and medical technicians.
It isn’t an either-or choice, of course. Kansas Citians have shown they expect robust public safety protection, and they’re willing to pay for it.
They aren’t willing to waste money, though. The city and its fire service have an obligation to show they’re working to make sure that doesn’t happen.