Conn. FD goes $3.3M past its OT budget

New Haven fire officials said the COVID-19 pandemic is to blame for the excessive overtime costs


Brian Zahn
New Haven Register, Conn.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — It's $3.3 million in city money.

That's what New Haven Fire Chief John Alston needed to cover overtime in the department.

The overtime is projected to reach $5.5 million by the end of the fiscal year, exceeding what was allocated by about $3.3 million and a seven-year high for the department.

The allocated "$2.1 million is not enough to cover my overtime budget. It never was," Alston has said.

The projected $5.5 million overtime is a seven-year high for the department. Alston said several unprecedented events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and Tropical Storm Isaias, played a role — but that's not all.

Alston said there have been nine department retirements this year as well as several vacancies; according to a December city budget update, that includes seven firefighter positions.

"When we staff our positions and have active lists, our labor costs go down," Alston said.

The department also has struggled to effectively run an academy amid the pandemic and staff shortages.

With 305 firefighters quarantining at some point during the year and 38 testing positive for COVID-19, Alston said there were fewer strategic ways to call people into work to avoid paying overtime. He said caution was necessary when firefighters had potential exposure to the virus, because the potential for the virus to spread to an entire shift would greatly hinder the department's operational ability.

With several vacancies, the department is showing a small surplus on the $27.7 million that was budgeted for Fire Department salaries — about $1.3 million.

Alders voted on an ordinance amendment to transfer $1 million from the department's salary budget to its overtime budget, and to transfer $1.9 million from its $4 million expenditure reserve account to make up most of the difference.

Alder Abby Roth, D-7, said she is opposed to the transfer from the debt fund.

"I'm grateful for the hard work of our firefighters and recognize the amount budgeted for overtime is too low," she said, but she believed it was premature to spend roughly half of the reserve fund. She said there is a possibility the city could find revenue from elsewhere to pay off the extra overtime costs, and using reserve funds runs counter to city initiatives to curtail excess overtime spending.

Roth said the Fire Department recently took several steps to curtail spending — from implementing overtime tracking software to hiring an analyst to provide financial oversight.

"We should keep the pressure on the department to use the tools and resources it told us it is starting to use, to see if it is better able to control these costs," she said.

According to Assistant Fire Chief Justin McCarthy, the department hired the analyst temporarily for $62,781 a year and pays $120 per employee each year for software to track their overtime.

Roth's sentiments were not shared by her colleagues, who approved both line item transfers.

"It is quite obvious that the cost of safety can cost," said Alder Jeanette Morrison, D-22. "Our chief comes back every year and asks for this transfer because they don't have the right amount of people or new people to really bring that budget down at this second to continue to keep our residents safe."

Morrison said that lives are on the line when it comes to the city's fire budget.

"Our residents need to know when they call 911 someone will be there," she said.

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(c)2021 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

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