The San Marino City Council had another round of budget discussions during its May 27 meeting. The council gave City Manager John Schaefer new direction to earmark $230,000 for the San Marino Fire Department’s overtime budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year.
The council budgeted the same amount for the current fiscal year, but the fire department will use nearly double that amount by the end of the 2016 fiscal year on June 30.
At the last budget hearing two weeks ago, the council agreed to an overtime budget of $180,000, an amount which was expected to allow for four firefighters on the station’s one and only engine for four to six months.
The council’s motivation for reducing the fire department’s overtime budget to $180,000 came from a desire to reign in costs.
“Right now we’re dealing with overtime that is out of control through no fault of anybody, but we have got to put realistic controls on that,” said Councilman Steve Talt.
Reducing the overtime budget is one of many options that were considered to reduce department costs.
The city council attempted to reduce costs during the current fiscal year by hiring a 13th firefighter, which was budgeted to cost $130,000, but failed to do so.
The city manager decided to remove that option for the 2016-17 fiscal year, though the council and city manager appeared to be open to options that reduce costs and maintain the quality of service.
“I think a long-term solution is to find an affordable way to have four guys on the engine [because] we can’t just continue to pay overtime and write a blank check to have four guys on the engine all the time,” said City Manager Schaefer.
Mayor Allan Yung echoed Schaefer’s attitude. He said, “We need a first class fire department, but we also don’t want to give you a blank check on overtime.”
Vice Mayor Richard Sun approached the matter from a slightly different angle, attempting to strike a balance between the firefighters and the council.
“I like to separate the staffing issue from the budget,” he said, adding that he would like to see four firefighters on the engine.
Yung and Talt agreed with Sun that four firefighters on the engine would be preferable, though Councilman Talt would like to “experiment” with running three firefighters on the engine on some days.
“We should say ‘let’s do four and if we can work out something where occasionally we have three let’s do it’ and see what our experience is before we make any drastic, draconian moves” said Talt. He added that if that plan doesn’t work the council can change it based on the department’s experience and a study that will examine the department’s deployment procedures.
San Marino Firefighters’ Association President Nathan Foth challenged Talt on his use of the term “experiment.”
“The work that we do, calling it an ‘experiment’ is inappropriate,” Foth, a SMFD firefighter, said.
In a similar tone, Fire Chief Mario Rueda added, “You talk about experimenting. Somebody in here may be the victim of that experiment.”
Chief Rueda explained to the council that overtime pay is part of the department’s personnel costs. It’s used to cover the shift of a firefighter who may be sick, on vacation or recovering from a long-term injury.
“These [overtime] increases over [$360,000] are really the result of long-term, on-duty injuries that we can’t predict and they’ve spiked our overtime in some years and they’ve brought it down in other years,” said Chief Rueda, adding that he expects to have one firefighter out on any given day.
Chief Rueda requested that the council budget $360,000 for overtime pay and promised to work with the firefighters’ union to cap overtime at that amount, though the council decided to hold firm at $230,000.
He informed the council that the only other one-engine station in Los Angeles County, in the City of Hermosa Beach, has run into serious difficulties since adopting a policy of three firefighters on the engine. Hermosa Beach is now considering contracting with Los Angeles County for its fire protection services.
Chief Rueda also noted that the City of South Pasadena, which is closest to San Marino’s structure, has an overtime budget of over $500,000 for its fire department.
The council will reconvene on at 5 p.m. on June 8 at San Marino City Hall to approve the city’s final budget for 2016-17.