Audit recommends Pa. officials keep better track of firefighter hours
City Controller Tony Bassil said the city of Easton needs to start keeping better track of firefighter work hours to avoid errors in reporting
By Christina Tatu
The Morning Call
EASTON, Pa. — The City of Easton needs to start keeping better track of firefighter work hours to avoid errors in reporting, said City Controller Tony Bassil Wednesday night after presenting an audit report of the fire department's overtime for the past four years.
Right now, administrators keep track of attendance using Excel spreadsheets, Bassil told City Council.
City officials ordered the audit after the fire department spent its entire $450,000 2018 overtime budget midway through the year. By October of this year, overtime costs amounted to $656,218.
Bassil said the city should immediately start using a software package from a company such as ADP to improve the accuracy of tracking hours worked and time off.
Such a system would also help the city determine the "true cost" of staffing special events like Garlic Fest and Bacon Fest, which sometimes require firefighters to work overtime, Bassil said.
Bassil's report also looks at the reasons firefighters are accumulating overtime, such as sick time, vacation days, special events and training. The city should fill vacant positions immediately to cut down on overtime, he said.
Some of the costs that contributed to this year's overtime included $258,978 for covering sick time; $178,745 to cover for vacant positions, $27,379 from injuries on the job and $89,207 for circumstances like a death in the family, time to make repairs/ maintenance to equipment, shift transfers, and attending to union business and officers meetings.
The $656,218 in overtime represents 20 percent of the department's gross compensation for 2018, according to Bassil's report.
"Anything over ten percent is what we call a concern. We are really concerned about the amount we are spending on overtime," he said.
Acting Fire Chief Kevin Arnold said he knew the city was conducting an audit, but he wasn't aware it would be presented to City Council Wednesday night and he had not seen it as of Thursday afternoon.
Easton's firefighters have been without a contract since the end of 2016. An arbitrator took over the process last year, but a new contract has yet to be settled.
Mayor Sal Panto Jr. said Wednesday he hopes the arbitrator makes a decision withing the next two to three weeks.
The current contract requires a crew of at least 10 firefighters for each shift.
City officials are hopeful a new contract will address overtime by doing away with the minimum staffing requirement, which the firefighters' union wants to keep.
Firefighters contend having a minimum number of staff on each shift is a matter of safety and the real issue is that vacant positions have not been filled.
Arnold said there are currently two positions open in the department: a vacancy from when former Fire Chief John Bast left in September, and a lieutenant's position that has been vacant for more than two years.
The lieutenant's position should be filled within the next several weeks, but more firefighters are retiring next year, so it's anticipated another four position will be opening up in January.
With half the department reaching retirement age, the trend of retirements is expected to continue over the next several years, Arnold said.
On Wednesday night, Panto questioned whether some firefighters are using sick time like vacation days and asked Bassil to look into how many sick days each firefighter is taking.
Arnold said that may have been a problem in the department at one time, but a policy has been instituted in recent years that requires firefighters to provide a doctor's note if they are out more than two consecutive days.
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