Leominster Fire Dept. OT Skyrockets
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
Retirement, pension, and cost of benefits are key parts of this issue, and Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella says that overall, taxpayers would rather stretch the amount of overtime than pay for the healthcare and other benefits entailed in hiring on additional firefighters.
Taxing to Firefighters
Union President at Leominster’s Local 1841, Craig Long, says that while the city may save money in benefits and pension when it chooses to raise overtime, the city needs to consider how taxing this is to firefighters.
“Sometimes the city would rather not pay the benefits that come with putting on more people,” he said. When asked whether he thought that was a good way to tackle the problem, Long said, “I think you have to have balance.”
Long has been on the Leominster Fire Department for 25 years and says they have three fewer positions since when he started.
“I assume it’s because of costs associated with employees,” he said. “They would rather pay overtime than take on newer ones.”
Long says that this is an issue facing every town in the Commonwealth as costs to keep workers increase.
“I don’t know if I think all the overtime is all that good. You’re taxing each individual. They’re working more than normal,” he said.
Since 2008, total overtime pay has increased from $689,706.53 to $703,542.22 in 2009, to $1,127,854.95 in 2010. The next year (2011) saw a slight decrease to $985,159.42, still hundreds of thousands of dollars more than previous years’ totals. The department has seen retirements of firefighters and lieutenant firefighters since 2008, yet total gross salary for the department rose from $6,069,043.63 to $6,228,277.71 last year. Numbers for 2012 have not yet been completed and were therefore not included in the chart.
When asked about Minimum Manning Laws, Long reported that, “There are no state laws pertaining to that. Each department does that per city and negotiates those things with the city,” he said. “There are supposed to be seventeen firefighters on duty citywide at all times.”
“We had a number of retirements at that time, and the city wasn’t hiring. We are back up to the number we used to have,” he said.
Mayor Mazzarella says that this increase in overtime save taxpayers money, but Long says that’s something the city needs to look at.
“We had that minimum on duty and retired a number of people on each group. And you still have vacations and sick days and injuries, which affects number of people you have out,” Long said. “That’s what the city has to look at. Sometimes they would rather pay the overtime than hire more people due to the associated costs that come with that.”
Overtime and 24-Hour Shifts
According to Mayor Mazzarella, the city runs 24-hour shifts and has never heard anyone turn down overtime.
“They assured me when we agreed to that that they wouldn’t be tired,” he said. In fairness, if the taxpayer looks at it, they say, ‘What’s the best economical way to get a service to a city?’ When you look at salary and overtime… across the state more departments are going to more overtime. You can’t use that as a blanket statement,” he said.
While this is an issue affecting many towns, Leominster’s mayor said that there is a proposal to add more flex room.
“We have a proposal before the fire department to allow more flex and spending. We would hire more if we could have them on as we needed them,” he said. “There’s a particular time of day. The day takes longer to respond. At 3:00 am, there’s not the same level of activity. We’re hoping they would go along with that. We would hire more rather than beefing up each shift.”
“My commitment has always been the same – if you can show how this won’t cost taxpayers any more… in the absence of that, we’re maintaining the best we can,” he said. “But you have to consider, each time you hire someone, that’s two weeks’ vacation as soon as they start, and we also put them on Blue Cross Blue Shield.”
Long said that now is a hot time for these issues due to new state regulations and the ever-increasing cost of healthcare.
“The reason it’s coming to a head now is because of new regulations to put unfunded liabilities on paper,” Long explained. “Cities and towns had been putting away that money and now it’s an issue because didn’t have to report it before. Now that they do, it’s a huge issue – it’s millions and millions.”
He added that while these are concerns everywhere, the city of Leominster has to do their share to even out the problem.
“We’ve been doing our part. They take out insurance. They take out pensions. The city wasn’t paying their share,” he said. “They have to start putting some money aside. It’s been an issue since the beginning,” Long said. “Every year they’re able. They’re able to fund it each year. It would take something catastrophic for them to not being able to put something aside for that.”
“They could have been putting some to unfunded liability a long time ago. They chose not to, but look at pensions,” he said. “They got on top of that. They now have that paid off years ahead of schedule.”
Mayor Mazzarella said that this issue has become a focal issue now that the state changed laws and communities changed the way they negotiated health insurance.
“Every city and town has unfunded liabilities, and nobody anticipated healthcare to cost this much,” he said, adding that the potential for overtime at the city has its benefits. “I think it’s a fair process. People who work in a lot of other private sectors can’t make the money they do.”
Retirement concerns have also risen for Leominster as well as other areas. The mayor said, “People are retiring at a younger age if they’ve put in enough years. You’re starting to see a lot more of that. There are fewer people staying until the older years.”
Maintaining Bureaucratic Balance
One thing that Long and Mayor Mazzarella agree on is the need for balance. While overtime may bring benefits to those who would rather be making more money during the work week, the mayor says that they hope to reach a more balanced point soon. Long agreed.
“I’m sure they like making the money,” Long said, “but there has to be a good balance.”
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