AFD didn’t implement adequate overtime cost saving measures, audit says

Firefighters at the scene of a vacant structure fire in Central Austin. (KXAN/Fabian Mendoza)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you hate working weekends, you might have something in common with a lot of Austin Fire Department employees. A brand new city audit shows hundreds of firefighters are using large chunks of their sick leave on Saturdays and Sundays—forcing last-minute fill-ins who rack up plenty of overtime.

The city ordered the audit after a KXAN Investigation revealed skyrocketing overtime spending with AFD topping the list. The audit shows overtime pay in the department shot from $6.9 million in 2014 to $16.9 million in 2016 and it’s expected to hit $21 million by the end of this fiscal year.

AFD blames its ballooning overtime budget on a variety of things such as not enough applicants, mass retirement, and a union contract allowing firefighter overtime even if they’ve taken vacation time in that same pay period. However, the audit indicates the problem goes beyond those logistics; the audit states department leadership was aware of rising overtime costs but didn’t do enough to address them.

What’s more, AFD leaders told the city manager’s office and the city council about these concerning numbers but it wasn’t until KXAN’s investigation that this audit was ordered.

As city council members were set to go behind closed doors Wednesday to talk about ongoing contract negotiations with firefighters, there was a feeling that AFD’s skyrocketing overtime could finally be brought under control thanks to the city auditor’s review.

“We really need to get to a point where we understand that the choices that we make in these public safety contracts, not only affect our safety, they also affect the fiscal safety of our city and our ability to fund more cops on the streets and more firefighters,” said Council Member Alison Alter.

“Some of these changes I think can result in millions of dollars of savings. And have no appreciable impact on the quality of our fire service, nor on the quality of life of our firefighters. I think this is a process matter that has gotten out of control over the years,” said Council Member Jimmy Flannigan.

The audit notes opportunities to address rising overtime costs could include possibly allowing more civilian staff to assist with duties like dispatching calls, capping the pay rate when firefighters volunteer for overtime hours and negotiating changes to the union contract when it comes to approved leave.

“The firefighter’s association is supportive of that and we’re going into negotiations right now about that. Now that’s a hard won benefit we had from 2005, we do think we should receive some non-monetary items in exchange for that,” said Bob Nicks with the Austin Firefighter’s Association.

On Wednesday, AFD said in an email: “With regard to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement’s contract provision (that counts leave other than sick time as productive time) we’re in a ‘wait and see’ mode while the City’s Labor Relations team and the [Austin Firefighters] Association decide how they want to move forward with negotiations for a new contract.”

The audit also mentions AFD relying on overtime to meet its staffing requirements is nothing out-of-the-ordinary and it’s common practice in fire departments in other cities. But some of those cities are better at managing money with more oversight and supervisory approval of overtime, according to the audit.

Austin City Council members ordered the audit in June after having to dip into the budget stabilization fund in May for an additional $3.5 million for firefighter pay.

AFD is not alone, almost every city department has increased its overtime in recent years.

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