The Newburgh Fire Department has exceeded its appropriations for overtime pay for each quarter this year, calling for increased budget concerns that Mayor Torrance Harvey described as an “emergency” and led to a request for a forensic audit of the department. Despite cutting 16 staff members from the fire department last year, overtime costs have remained high. Although COVID-19 is a significant factor in the reflection of the quarterly reports, it is not seen as much in the Police Department’s report.
Comptroller Todd Venning presented the update of both the Police and Fire Department’s overtime. The reports are from January to September, which is the end of the third quarter.
The original budget for the Fire Department was set for $750,000 and the actual is $1,340,185 so far. This makes the variance a total of $590,185 over. The Police Department’s original budget was set for $1,050,000 and they’ve spent $1,003,03 so far. They have stayed under budget by $46,970.
The Police Department
Their overtime budget breaks up into $350,000 per quarter. In the second quarter, they were $116,335 over this number, although it was said to be due to COVID-19. The third quarter shows that they were under their overtime budget by $61,522.
Venning said that the department’s paid overtime for the first nine months of 2020 is seven percent lower than the same period last year. Compensatory time was 21 percent lower last year.
“Most of your overtime is at patrol and supervisor,” said Venning. “The third highest is related to COVID.”
He described the department’s decrease in overtime as “small, but significant.” It allowed for the funding of a part-time Deputy position.
Police Chief Arnold Amothor, who began at the end of the second quarter, expressed how the Police Advisory Committee suggested additional training and that it would affect overtime pay if implemented.
“We are at an interesting time in this country with policing and certainly the training and the community requests I support,” said Amthor. “But it all comes at a cost.”
Additionally, he acknowledged that there were no special events due to COVID this year that had to be patrolled. Amthor advised that the budget makes room for any additional overtime in preparation that things return to normal next year.
The Fire Department
While this department gets $100,000 less per quarter than the police department, they far surpassed the appropriation for overtime pay. In the first quarter they were $92,248 over, in the second quarter they were $150,000 over and in the third quarter they were $347,107 over.
The paid overtime for the first nine months of 2020 is 77 percent higher than the same period last year. However, compensatory time is 10 percent lower.
Most of the overtime pay, at 85 percent, is classified as “covering the line,” which means people who are out riding the fire trucks and in the field. Venning said that it comes down to a scheduling issue.
Venning identified 6,190 hours of COVID-related overtime, which equaled a payout of $309,605. The FEMA Grant will cover $1,000 of it.
Fire Chief William Horton broke down how the overtime is generated within the department. In January the department was reduced from 69 staff members to 53. Out of that number, 42 work “on the line,” out in the trucks. They staff ten to eleven officers around the clock, rotating between four work groups.
“The two groups that have ten members, any time someone is off, it generates overtime,” said Horton. “For the other two groups of eleven members, one person is off, it doesn’t generate overtime. Once the next person is off, it generates overtime.”
They’ve been moving around the two members to help lessen the amount of overtime. On top of this, each member averages four to six weeks of vacation a year. Horton described one of the reasons quarter two saw such a large number of overtime was because it’s over the summer months. Time off for the entire year is scheduled in December. This year it will be scheduled on December 3.
“Overtime is driven by three things: the number of firefighters we employ, the number of firefighters who we have on duty every day and the amount of time off everyday,” said Horton.
Despite the decrease in staffing last year, the amount of people who have to work everyday didn’t change. Horton said the number of ten employees working at any given time hasn’t changed since the 90s.
“When we lower the number of people who work, we don’t have the buffer we typically had in years past,” said Horton. “Most of our time off is generating overtime.”
He said it isn’t possible to lower the number of people who work everyday because it would leave everyone in an “unsafe position.”
The Council expressed their concern particularly with the Fire Department’s overtime expenses.
Councilman Anthony Grice said that “this situation has plagued us for many years and it is way over budget.”
Despite Horton seeing the overtime problem as a staffing issue, Grice said that the council has discussed part time staff if it meant offsetting the costs.
“When they were fully staffed, they were still trending over in overtime for various reasons,” said Grice. “Those things need to be examined. Is it a staffing issue or is it not a staffing issue?”
Councilwoman Ramona Monteverde asked, “In what corporation as a leader or manager would you be able to get away with this budget and going into overtime and spending this much money?”
She said any other leader or manager would “be out of a job” and that this is not “sustainable or fair.”
The Council also discussed the possibility of volunteer firefighters as well. Surrounding municipalities all have part time or volunteer firefighters.
“Looking at the numbers tonight from our Comptroller, we have a very serious emergency,” said Mayor Torrance Harvey. “I’m going to agree with Councilmember Monteverde and say it is management – it’s poor management.”
Harvey officially requested a forensic audit on the Police and Fire Department verbally during the meeting and said he would also have it written down as well. Prior to the reports, he also made a request for a Public Safety Commissioner and he said on Thursday, “this is why.”
“It would create checks and balances for our Chiefs as it relates to all types of matters, but particularly staffing and trimming down this overtime,” said Harvey. “This will bankrupt our city.”
Chief Horton had no comment following the Mayor’s statements.
Next steps would include more open conversations between Chiefs, Manager and other staff, including an advanced notice if they expect to exceed the allotted overtime, the Fire Department to submit a 2021 base overtime estimate and the implementation of scheduling software in the Police and Fire Department.