The San Marino City Council approved $230,000 for firefighter overtime for the 2016-17 fiscal year, which starts on July 1 and ends June 30, 2017. The amount is a significant decrease from the estimated $438,890 spent on overtime in the 2015-16 budget and the $390,137 spent in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
Council members concerned with the increasing expense made it a priority to cut overtime pay, initially starting this year’s budget discussion with City Manager John Schaefer’s proposal for a $183,000 allocation.
Schaefer’s proposal countered Fire Chief Mario Rueda’s request for $366,000 for overtime pay for next year, which Rueda said would be a more workable number.
The overtime account is charged about $1,000 to $1,200 a day for each day the department needs to backfill a firefighter, also known as “position coverage.” This happens almost every day of the year, according to Chief Rueda.
A firefighter uses earned, accrued time off for purposes of vacation, sickness, injury or training when he is off duty.
Of the 12 firefighter/paramedics, three fire captains and three fire engineers in the SMFD, a mix of six are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Four of the six—a captain, an engineer and two firefighter/paramedics—operate the station’s one fire engine. The remaining two firefighter/paramedics operate the ambulance.
According to the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, firefighters may not enter a burning building to put out a fire until four firefighters are present.
A cut in overtime pay would result in running San Marino’s sole fire engine with only three firefighters about half of the year.
Consequently, in these instances San Marino firefighters would have to wait for an engine from within the Verdugo Fire Communications System before making an offensive attack to identify and extinguish the source of a fire and potentially save lives. The Verdugo Fire Communications System is a mutual aid pact with surrounding fire agencies to share fire response resources,
With fires doubling in size every two minutes, a defensive attack by a three-firefighter engine would only prevent a fire from spreading to other buildings and may result in significant damage to a burning home and potential serious injuries to both residents and firefighters, according to a white paper on fire staffing that was acquired by The Tribune.
The overtime expenditure account is one of twenty expenditure accounts listed in the San Marino Fire Department’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Four other notable expense accounts are the “Shared Fire Command,” “Overtime-Strike Teams,” “Debt Service” and “Retirement-PERS accounts.”
“The Shared Fire Command of San Marino, San Gabriel and South Pasadena illustrates how a partnership between three local governments has helped expand and improve fire command services, significantly reduce spending and operate more efficiently and effectively across all three municipalities,” according to a report by the League of California Cities.
The three-year-old partnership allows the three departments to share the cost of the fire chief and command staff.
Chief Rueda received approval from the city councils of San Marino, San Gabriel and South Pasadena to commission a deployment study, which will look at possible efficiencies in deployment and the effectiveness of the tri-city model.
Chief Rueda hopes the results of the study, which he will present to the council approximately halfway through the fiscal year, will convince the council to provide adequate overtime funding to maintain four people on San Marino’s Engine 91.
The shared fire command is estimated to have net revenue of $106,000 to San Marino for the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Much like the overtime expenditure account, “Overtime-Strike Teams” captures the cost of San Marino firefighters fighting forest fires outside of San Marino. After reimbursements, the department is estimated to have net revenue of $41,940 from this service.
The “Debt Service” account came into existence in 2008 when the San Marino City Council decided to refinance pensions for the police, fire and administration departments. The cost of servicing the debt was allocated to the three departments and has steadily increased over the last five years by 19.6 percent for the fire and police departments.
The “Retirement-PERS” account experienced the largest increase over the last two years. From the 2014-15 budget to the 2015-16 budget, according to the city’s 2015-16 budget summary, the fire department paid 74 percent more towards the State of California’s public employees retirement fund, known as CalPERS.
The increase is a result of a reformulation of retirement funds by CalPERS, which required member agencies, like the City of San Marino, to pay off its unfunded accrued liability.
In 2015, the city council opted to pay down the city’s $31 million unfunded liability over 20 years instead of the usual duration of 30 years, which decreased the total cost to the city by $10.5 million.
The city is now making payments towards the $20.6 million unfunded liability, though increased out-of-pocket retirement costs for new city employees has helped keep that number low.
While the cost of the liability payments was spread out across most departments, an especially heavy burden has fallen on the departments with the most physically demanding jobs, including the fire and police departments, and the garage, street, park and grounds sub-departments within the public works department. These six departments are getting charged twice their normal CalPERS cost compared to the other 17 departments, which have borne an unfunded liability payoff burden that is lesser than their normal CalPERS costs.
For the upcoming year, the fire department is budgeted to pay $1,045,396 towards CalPERS. Almost all of the department’s $1,170,211 of generated revenue would have to go towards paying for PERS. The fire department contributes approximately 21 percent of the sum of generated revenues by city departments.
Additionally, the residents of San Marino contribute $1,909,780 to the fire department through the public safety tax.
These facts were either not presented or presented in complex ways during drawn-out city council budget discussions debating the merits of maintaining four firefighters on the city’s engine.
To complicate matters, the San Marino Firefighter’s Association—the firefighters’ union—has been at an impasse with the city for over a year.
With the final budget for the upcoming fiscal year now approved, the city council will wait to see how the consequences of its change to firefighter overtime pay will play out.