Terre Haute City Council on Thursday adopted a resolution allowing the transfer of $400,000 in city funds to cover a shortfall in the Terre Haute Fire Department overtime budget.
In an already packed end-of-the-year meeting, Fire Chief Jeff Fisher’s request for more overtime money garnered a lion’s share of the meeting’s discussion.
The point of contention: Terre Haute Fire was allotted $518,000 in overtime money in the 2019 budget. The new $400,000 appropriation constitutes a 77.2% increase over that original allotment.
Specifically, the money will be drawn from these line items:
• $11,616 allotted for office manager (controller)
• $53,869 allotted for senior financial analyst (controller)
• $60,000 allotted for deputy controller (controller)
• $30,500 allotted for group health insurance (controller)
• $14,250 allotted for PERF (controller)
• $5,465 allotted for Social Security (controller)
• $31,500 allotted for urban forester (engineering)
• $56,000 allotted for group health insurance (engineering)
• $44,700 allotted for systems administrator (IT)
• $50,400 allotted for senior systems/network admin (IT)
• $25,000 allotted for group health insurance (IT)
• $10,400 allotted for PERF (IT)
• $6,300 allotted for Social Security (IT)
Fisher said between the $518,000 budgeted for overtime, $400,000 now appropriated and $328,862 he’s pulled from other THFD line items, his department will spend $1,246,862 for overtime in 2019.
But, as he told the council, overtime is near impossible to predict year to year. Couple that with an unwillingness to close a firehouse and the inability to understaff a department apparatus, and you get overtime overruns, Fisher said.
“We have to fill our numbers,” Fisher said. “When we run out of money in our overtime we have to try trim as much as we can, but I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know how much we’ll have to budget,” Fisher said.
“I would love to budget my overtime for $1 million every year, but we won’t do that. If we didn’t spend that money it would just go back in to the general fund.”
Along with eight retirements in the department, Fisher said overtime shifts, each 24 hours, were created in a host of ways.
Overtime reasons Fisher provided City Council:
• 621 shifts created while staff missed two or more days for sick time
• 348 shifts created while staff was away at paramedic class
• 281 shifts created for wellness days
• 151 shifts created by FLSA time
• 113 shifts created while staff missed time on workers compensation leave
• 110 shifts created while staff was away on military leave
• 57 shifts created while staff missed time on light duty
• 42 shifts created while staff took funeral leave
“We didn’t pay more overtime because we had more fires, I’m saying we paid more overtime because our firefighters were off for whatever reason,” Fisher said. “ ... More fires? No. More injuries? Yes.”
Council member Karrum Nasser, D-3, asked Fisher about the 348 shifts created while department members were away at paramedic class, a requirement for THFD members, and whether it’s reasonable to expect new hires to already have that qualification prior to being hired.
Fisher said it’s not likely a prospective employee would take those classes on their own if they know the department will pay for them once they’re hired.
Nasser said that’s something that should be looked at more closely moving forward.
The discussion led some council members to ask if Fisher thought the department needs more staff, or whether it’s cheaper to just pay the overtime.
With eight more department members set to retire in 2020, Fisher said he needs 12 additional firefighters to help prevent overtime overrun against next year. He also prefers, he said, not to have to ask for additional overtime money.
Council President Martha Crossen questioned Fisher waiting until the final meeting of the year to let the council know the department faced a six-figure shortfall in one of its funds.
After saying he knew mid-year the department would not likely have enough to cover overtime, Fisher said, “I understand not waiting until the end of the year, but I waited until the end of the year on purpose,” but offered nothing more specific.
Crossen said it would be wise for city department’s to give the council more advanced notice when they know they’re facing a substantial deficit.
“I would make the suggestion that if that’s going to happen, that you clue us in on that earlier,” Crossen said. “It’s hard for me to understand, and maybe harder for the public to understand, that we’re at a point know where there is nothing else we can do.”
Council mender George Azar (D-at large) was not at Thursday’s meeting.
Reporter Alex Modesitt can be reached at 812-231-4232 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TribStarAlex.