San Francisco firefighters seeing green as city budget wallows in red 

As city officials work to close next fiscal year’s projected $360 million budget deficit, the Fire Department is facing millions of dollars in wage increases that include premium pay, fringe benefits and overtime.

Taxpayers were already on the hook for $4.7 million in previously negotiated raises the fire union had deferred for two years. On top of the salaries, the department is bracing for a $7.8 million increase in mandatory fringe benefits and a $1.4 million increase in so-called premium pay — higher rates for firefighters with special skills such as being bilingual or driving a fire engine.

And since no firefighters have been hired since 2005, a department that already incurs some of The City’s highest overtime costs has proposed a 42 percent increase in overtime, at a cost of almost $9 million.

The numbers are in the first draft of a proposed budget sent to the Fire Commission last week. As the budget process moves forward, fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White expects the numbers to change, particularly the overtime increase.  

The department has long paid firefighters overtime instead of hiring new employees. That saves The City money by avoiding the need to pay new hires benefits and pensions.

But the proposed increase in overtime has raised the ire of firefighters.

“People are being forced to work overtime,” said Tom O’Connor, the president of the firefighters union. “Firefighters couldn’t go home on days such as Christmas, Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving. It’s tough. It’s been a real strain on their family lives.”

Also, the department’s overtime strategy is becoming less of a bargain as more and more overtime is paid out.

“That’s why we hired 12 EMTs in January and we’re bringing on 36 full-time firefighters in May,” Hayes-White said.

While the department is hiring for the first time in more than five years, those new employees will only make a dent in a department that is currently understaffed by 200 frontline firefighters, O’Connor said.

As for the 4 percent pay increase, he said the firefighters union did what it could to help close record deficits in previous years by delaying the raise its members will receive in 2011. The union is not going to delay it again.

Tony Winnicker, a spokesman for Mayor Ed Lee, said the Mayor’s Office has yet to review the draft budget. Consequently, it could be significantly different by the time it is submitted to the Mayor’s Office and the Board of Supervisors for approval.

“The City has made significant strides in reducing overtime costs in major departments over the last few years, and Mayor Lee is dedicated to continuing those improvements,” Winnicker said.

Union points to volunteers for next cuts

As city firefighters complain about the amount of overtime they are logging, one beneficiary of such spending is an untested community-outreach program union officials have sought to eliminate.

Last year, the Fire Department paid out $253,000 in overtime to firefighters who taught volunteers how to help in the event of a major emergency. This program, the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team, has trained about 20,000 people since its creation after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but it has not been truly tested.

The only time the team was called out was following the fuel spill caused by the Cosco Busan container ship in 2007. However, volunteers were prohibited from helping because they were not specifically trained for
hazardous-materials cleanup.

If a major earthquake or fire were to hit The City, the volunteer teams have been trained to survey their neighborhoods, provide information to the Fire Department, conduct searches and perform medical triage.

Not surprisingly, the program is popular with residents and has been fiercely defended by fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White in years The City has faced large budget deficits.

Lt. Mindy Talmadge said the program would alleviate the strain on first responders. The main goal is to prepare people to be self-sufficient for a minimum of three days, which allows emergency workers to focus on more-pressing needs.

But despite the cushy nature of the assignment — earning time and a half for a job that presents very little danger — the union has actually suggested trimming the service.

“We’re always looking for efficiencies, so at least frontline services aren’t cut,” said Tom O’Connor, the president of Firefighters Local 798.

James Corrigan, a former firefighter who is an outspoken critic of the department’s payment policies, offered a few alternatives. The department could have retired firefighters teach the class, he said, or firefighters who have been injured on the job could offer their expertise.

bbegin@sfexaminer.com

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