At Tuesday’s meeting, staff will request Council to amend this year’s General Fund budget to increase the level of spending authorized for the fire department – while, at the same time, adjusting the police department expense budget downward.
One of the primary items in the million-dollar bump for the fire department is more money for overtime: $220,000 in addition to the $1.13 million provided in the budget approved last June.
Without the amendment, the fire department would blow its overtime allotment for fiscal year 2015-16 badly. Indeed, during the first nine months of the fiscal year, it already has burned through the amount authorized for overtime for the entire period.
A cynic who looks no deeper than the surface might take these facts as confirming what she already believes: Of course, the firefighters want to run wild with overtime. It means bigger paychecks for IAFF Local 689 members and a bigger share of the General Fund budget – and therefore greater control over City government – for the department.
This, of course, isn’t the story Council will hear. Instead, they’re likely to be told that the fire department has been seriously under-staffed this year, so it has had to spend, and will have to continue to spend, more money on overtime than the original budget called for. It’s the only way to maintain public safety.
But this explanation is too simplistic. The police department also has been “under-staffed” during the first nine months of FY 2015-16; the resulting “vacancies” are why the overall police budget is being reduced. Nevertheless, through March 31, 2016, the cops have spent only 67 percent of their overtime budget for FY 2015-16. And no one is claiming that the public is less safe as a result.
The Merry Go-Round is suspicious of overly cynical, or overly simplistic, explanations. So we decided to dig deeper into the relationship between staffing and overtime in the fire and police departments. Today, we’ll report what we learned from interviews and email exchanges with Police Chief Paul Rolleri and Fire Chief Doug Long, both of whom we thank for their willingness to respond to our multiple inquiries. (Any residual factual errors are own responsibility.)
(Our focus will be exclusively on the overtime issue. For those who prefer their glass half full, we should note that staff also is seeking Tuesday to amend the budget to revise projected revenue upward by $4.335 million. This includes $655,000 in additional revenue attributed to the fire department, including reimbursements from the state for services provided to Medi-Cal beneficiaries.)
We’ll start with fire.
According to Chief Long, the department’s goal is to have four fire engines, two fire trucks, and three ambulances ready and available to answer calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This requires 25 sworn fire department employees: a captain, an apparatus operator, and a firefighter on each engine and truck, and two firefighters in each ambulance, plus a division chief. “This is our daily minimum for suppression staffing,” the Chief told us. “If we are short the apparatus is out of service.”
To assemble the necessary crews, Chief Long said, he needs to be able to assign 31 fire personnel to each of three shifts. The “extra” six firefighters, the Chief explained, are required to “backfill [i.e., fill in] for various leaves such as vacation, comp time, sick leave, injury leave, etc.” (The scheduling contemplates that on each shift five firefighters will be taking prearranged vacation days or comp time. The sixth “extra” firefighter covers unscheduled leaves such as sickness, injury, or family emergencies.)
This results in a total of 93 fire department employees (three division chiefs, 18 captains, and 72 apparatus operators/firefighters) being necessary to staff the engines, trucks, and ambulances round the clock. Add in the management team – the chief and a deputy chief – and three additional captains assigned to office positions, and the total headcount rises to 98, which is the staffing level Chief Long has told Council – and told us – is the minimum number of personnel “required to provide the level of service we are providing now.”
The amount of overtime depends on the extent to which the department actually has enough firefighters on the payroll to meet its staffing target. If the fire department had a full complement of 98, Chief Long told us, overtime would be used only where “we have more absences on a shift than the six extra firefighters can fill.” With a staff of fewer than 98, “a portion of normal leaves must be covered with overtime personnel; otherwise apparatus would be out of service, decreasing the level of service to the City.”
And therein lies the explanation for the overtime numbers in the FY 2015-16 budget and YTD results.
At the time Council was discussing the budget last May, the fire department was authorized to employ a total of 92 firefighters, but it had five vacancies, so only 87 were on the roster of sworn personnel. Five new firefighters were hired and completed training in November 2015, bringing the total to 92, still six short of the 98-firefighter target. When we asked Chief Long how he maintained the “required” staffing level before these firefighters came on the job, he answered in one word: “Overtime.” Undoubtedly, he’d give the same answer if asked how he met the staffing requirement after November 2015. It’s the same problem, just a smaller one.
The situation will get better once the five firefighters hired with funds provided by a federal SAFER grant complete their training this May. That will bring the headcount to 97, only one fewer than the target number. And once the fire department reaches full strength (or close to it), Chief Long told Mayor Trish Spencer during the budget hearings, overtime will “decrease greatly.”
But that will happen too late to make any difference in FY 2015-16, which ends in June. The fire budget adopted by Council last June authorized $1.13 million in overtime expense. Through March 31, 2016, the department actually had spent $1.29 million on overtime. Presumably the $220,000 increase in the budget is intended to see the department through the rest of the fiscal year.
Given this fiscal impact, the issue inevitably arises about whether the fire department is setting its staffing requirement too high. (This is distinct from the issue of whether the union members working for the department are being paid too much.) The short answer is: Hell if we know. But the topic of over-staffing is one that others have raised in the past.
Reluctant as we are to irritate our friends at the firefighters’ union hall, we have to bring up, once again, the study conducted for the City by the International City/County Management Association in 2009. ICMA concluded that a “fully staffed” shift for the Alameda fire department should consist of 26 firefighters and a captain (compared to the 31 fire personnel per shift required under Chief Long’s approach). If this were done, ICMA stated, the total headcount would fall to 86 (compared to the Chief’s requirement of 98).
The firefighters’ union immediately condemned the ICMA report – “at least misleading and at most blatantly incorrect,” the union stated in a 19-page “rebuttal” – and it never got a hearing before Council. (Indeed, after the IAFF Local 689 slate was elected in November 2010, the report was consigned to the dumpster – with the rest of the handiwork of Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant).
Yet questions about staffing have persisted. During the budget hearings last May, Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese focused on the three ambulances. He noted that two firefighters are assigned to each ambulance and asked, “Is there a way to deliver the service without such a versatile and highly compensated crew?” Chief Long responded that “the City gets the most bang for their buck” by assigning sworn firefighters (rather than civilian paramedics) to ambulances. The firefighters are “multi-faceted,” the Chief told Council. “They’re also rescue swimmers. They’re also people who can do auto extrications. They’re very cost-effective.”
Not having any expertise in personnel management in general, or public safety operations in particular, we are in no position to second-guess Chief Long’s staffing decisions. Still, we can’t shake off our discomfort with the notion that, unless the City hires enough firefighters to meet the Chief’s target of 98, it will have to shell out a million bucks a year for overtime.
Now for the police.
So far this fiscal year the police department has spent less than half as much on overtime as the fire department – even though it faces much the same staffing issues. And the cops are not seeking an increase in their FY 2015-16 budget. To the contrary, staff is recommending a $450,000 decrease.
Chief Rolleri told us that his top priority was to maintain a fully staffed patrol force. (The police department also operates an investigations division with three units, a traffic section, and a “bureau of services”). From 2:45 a.m. to 11 a.m., he wants no fewer than five officers and one sergeant on the streets; from 11 a.m. to 9:15 p.m., the goal is a minimum of seven officers and one sergeant during the week, and eight officers and one sergeant on the weekends. The latter minimums also apply for the period from 9:15 p.m. to 2:45 a.m.
To keep these cops on the streets, the police budget authorizes 46 slots for police officers and eight for sergeants in the patrol division. According to Chief Rolleri, “42 healthy officers” are needed to meet his minimum staffing requirements. If available, the other four officers would be assigned to what the Chief calls the “cover shift” from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., the busiest time during the day.
Like the fire department, the police department has not been able to fill all of its authorized positions, or even to meet its minimum staffing targets. When Chief Rolleri made his presentation to Council last May, there were four vacancies in patrol, three of which subsequently have been filled. But since then five policemen – a captain, a sergeant, and three police officers – have retired, and a lieutenant has gone on permanent disability. As a result, there are now seven vacancies in the patrol division, with only 39 police officers permanently assigned to patrol. (The staffing situation will get worse in the near future, the Chief said, when five officers take paternity leave).
Chief Rolleri told us he’s tried to keep the required minimum number of cops on the street without incurring overtime expense by assigning police officers from other divisions to patrol. At present, three officers have been “temporarily reassigned to patrol to fill staffing holes and avoid OT.” The investigations units “suffer when this happens,” he said, “but patrol is our service backbone and we will always staff it.”
But even shuffling officers around can’t eliminate overtime altogether. “We can plan ahead for most vacations and training,” the Chief said, “but last-minute injury or sick leave could require OT if we are already at our minimums.” Nevertheless, the department attempts to minimize overtime expense in several ways. Among them are allowing officers to complete misdemeanor reports and some felony reports on their next duty day; “holding” non-emergency calls for service until the next shift comes on duty; using one platoon as a “cover shift” to avoid assigning a day shift officer to take a report at the end of the shift, and coordinating with the District Attorney’s office to reduce “unnecessary subpoenas.”
The strategy seems to be working. The police budget adopted by Council last June authorized $944,548 in overtime expense. Through March 31, 2016, the department actually had spent $628,237 on overtime. The variance was greatest in the patrol division: $342,559 spent versus $590,860 budgeted.
Having given us these facts, Chief Rolleri ended on a cautionary note. “For the record, I absolutely need all 88 of our authorized sworn positions,” he said. “We are less efficient and effective operating with our current numbers, but I am fortunate to have some hard working team players who find a way to get things done. Patrol will always be staffed . . . , but I need a full complement of detectives and traffic officers to provide complete public safety services.”
So that’s the overtime situation for fire and police, and our attempt at explaining it. Lest there be any mistake, we don’t mean to assert that the police department is “better managed” than the fire department because its overtime expense is lower, both in absolute dollars and relative to its budget. (Chief Rolleri doesn’t need compliments from the likes of us anyway). That would be akin to comparing, say, Apple and General Motors: sure, both companies produce consumer goods, but they operate in different industries and use different business models.
But we do think that any analysis of the public safety budget should zero in on the assumptions used to derive the numbers. Councilman Tony Daysog once famously proclaimed that he was willing to give either the fire or police chief – we forget which – whatever he asked for. But when Council meets Tuesday, we hope the politicians will look at the rationale behind the amendments they are being asked to approve.
April 19, 2016 staff report & exhibit: 2016-04-19 staff report re amending budget; 2016-04-19 Ex. 2 to staff report – FY 2015-16 Mid-Year Budget Amendments
FY 2015-16 YTD fire & police budget comparison: FY 15-16 Fire Department Budget to Actual as of 3-31-16; FY 15-16 Police Department Budget Summary