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Fire department's overtime expenses exceed $665K

Last year, about 31 percent of the budgeted overtime expenses were associated with firefighters calling in sick


By Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — The final tally for the fire department’s overtime expenses hit more than $665,000 before the fiscal year ended on June 30.

City Comptroller James E. Mills confirmed that overtime increased about 42 percent, from about $468,000 the previous fiscal year.

And the cost for legal expenses has also gone up to $393,687. In addition, the $393,687 figure doesn’t include bills for May, June and July, because the law firm of Bond, Schoeneck & King has not submitted them yet, Mr. Mills said.

For the 2016-17 fiscal year, the city spent $230,087 in legal bills with the firm, he said.

Daniel Daugherty, president of the Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191, wasn’t surprised that overtime and legal expenses are so high.

“The city wants to spend and there seems to be no end in sight,” he said.

Overtime became a bone of contention during this spring’s budget deliberations. City Council members cut the budgeted amount of $631,000 to $570,000 because they were not happy with overtime expenses regarding sick time.

Fire Chief Dale C. Herman lobbied to keep it at $631,000, contending that his projections were accurate.

Chief Herman is now projecting overtime to be at least $650,000 for this year. It could exceed that amount, depending on what happens with the three-year contract dispute with the firefighters’ union.

“To my thinking, they’re going to pay more,” the fire chief said.

He said that his projection doesn’t take into account that an arbitrator could give firefighters more money in a settlement. The city also could end up with a surplus in overtime if the settlement includes cutting firefighters from the department, he said.

Last year, about 31 percent of the budgeted overtime expenses were associated with firefighters calling in sick and others being called in to work to make sure that a full staff of 15 is on duty at all times.

In defending the sick and overtime expenses, Chief Herman said that the 72-member fire department is down three firefighters because of long-term illnesses that will eventually end up as retirements.

On Tuesday, Councilman Stephen A. Jennings reiterated his belief the fire department is purposely driving up overtime costs amid the labor dispute between the city and the firefighters union. He said he believes the department can run more efficiently.

The 70-member union has been without a contract since July 2014. The contract talks became increasingly bitter after eight captains were demoted to firefighters last July.

The contract dispute’s main sticking point remains the issue involving the “minimal manning” stipulation that 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times. The city contends the stipulation causes the department to be overstaffed, while the union maintains that changing it would be unsafe.

The legal bills could continue to mount because the city and the union still have a series of court cases, grievances and improper-labor-practice complaints in the works.

Terry O’Neil, a Long Island labor and employment attorney with Bond, Schoeneck & King, is representing the city in the dispute with the firefighters’ bargaining unit. Nathaniel Lambright of the Syracuse law firm of Blitman & King represents the firefighters’ union.

Copyright 2017 Watertown Daily Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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