D.C. fire department again exceeds overtime budget

Local,DC,Melanie Ciarrone

The District's fire chief is spending money on overtime at such a rate that he will blow through his overtime budget halfway through the fiscal year, a D.C. Council member warned Thursday.

At-large Councilman Phil Mendelson said the department's overtime budget for fiscal 2010 was just under $5 million, while only three of the department's many current overtime programs would end up costing $8 million.

The fire department spent more than double what it had budgeted for overtime last fiscal year, shelling out $11 million in 2009 after budgeting $5 million.

Fire Chief Dennis Rubin told the council's public safety committee, chaired by Mendelson, that the department's problems were caused by "the vicious cycle of vacancies, followed by overtime, followed by frozen vacancies, followed by more overtime."

Rubin said certain fire department programs, such as the water supply engine companies, have indirectly contributed to overtime spending but were still valuable and needed.

The water supply engines, which help prevent water shortages at an emergency scene, are driven by employees who are supported by limited overtime, Rubin told the panel.

But Mendelson said a certain number of fire department positions were frozenbecause the agency chose to undertake new initiatives that were not funded in its budget, Mendelson said.

"You are implementing a new initiative, water supply engine companies, and based on what information I have that's an important and good initiative. But you're being asked to absorb it [the cost]," Mendelson said. "If there's a new initiative, there has to be a request."

Rubin said the only way to manage the department's $189.5 million budget and reduce overtime would be to reduce the staffing of firetrucks and ambulances, close fire stations, stop fire prevention inspections and stop operation of the training division. "But," Rubin said, "I think the cost of that long term would be astronomical."

Mendelson suggested instead finding ways to resolve disciplinary problems faster so there would not be large numbers of employees on leave, requiring others to fill in and receive overtime pay.

Rubin said the union would have to be willing to explore other ways to deal with disciplinary problems since the trial process was very slow. The council will continue to monitor the department's spending, Mendelson said.

"There are choices being made and they're choices to spend rather than live within the budget," he said. The committee has tentatively planned another oversight hearing in December.

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