By RICK GREEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — As city officials prepare to begin their yearly budget process, one category of expenditure looms large – firefighter overtime pay.
Last year, almost every firefighter took home thousands of dollars in overtime in addition to their regular compensation.
A dozen firefighters earned more than $20,000 in overtime alone, boosting some annual wages to more than $90,000.
In all, the 40-member department racked up about $600,000 in overtime last calendar year, by far the most of any city department. The city was responsible for about half that amount, with Lakes Region General Hospital picking up much of the rest of the expense through an ambulance contract.
City Manager Scott Myers said overtime is not unusual in the fire service, particularly for a busy department that handles emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"We don't want them coming to work when they are sick," he said. "This is monitored at the department level, and on my end and in the budget process. I don't want to say there's zero abuse, but there are checks and balances in place."
Myers will present an initial budget at the City Council meeting on Monday.
Excessive overtime is a source of frustration for city leaders trying to adequately fund city services while living under a tax cap that limits increases in net spending for city, school and county budgets.
"There's certainly significant suspicion on the part of the City Council that the system is being gamed," said Mayor Ed Engler. "There are ways of working within the system, including the collective bargaining agreement of ensuring there is a lot of overtime that is available as a matter of routine, not out of the ordinary, or extraordinary, but routine."
Adding firefighters doesn't help, he said.
"Three years ago, we added four firefighters with no appreciable decline in overtime," said Engler.
The current contract between the city and the firefighters union, which expires June 30, mandates overtime pay at time-and-a-half for hours beyond the regular tour of duty.
Firefighters work one 24-hour day, followed by 48 hours off, followed by a 24-hour work day followed by four days off.
Chief Ken Erickson said the City Council and the city manager have always been supportive of his department, but he said he remains short of firefighters compared to other New Hampshire cities.
His is one of the busier departments in the region. The city's aging housing stock contributes to fire calls.
"Older buildings, you can do everything you want with your electrical system, but we have old wiring that can overheat and start a fire," he said.
Erickson typically has nine firefighters on duty, with six at the central station, and three at The Weirs station. Each station has a fire engine, a ladder truck and an ambulance.
Ideally, Erickson would like to have 13 firefighters on duty. That would entail hiring 16 new firefighters at an additional cost of $1.2 million.
The cost of hiring new firefighters would not be covered by a possible reduction in overtime. It can be less expensive to pay an overtime to an existing firefighter than to hire a new one and fund a full compensation package.
Erickson said although absenteeism is low, overtime is unavoidable. It costs the department $220,000 just to cover the 10 vacation days and four personal days the average firefighter takes per year.
Despite staffing constraints, the chief said his firefighters do an outstanding job and expressed pride in the force.
"Yesterday, they saved four lives," he said. "By lunchtime, that's a remarkable day in a city of 16,000 people."
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Laconia firefighters with highest overtime for 2016:
Lt. C. Vaillancourt, overtime $27,388, total pay $91,172
Firefighter D.M. Doucette, overtime $24,699, total pay $75,244
Lt. J.P. Hobby, overtime $24,578, total pay $87,020
Firefighter B. Keyes, overtime $24,370, total pay $81,018.
Firefighter S.A. Lewandowski, overtime $23,572, total pay $75,487
Firefighter K. Pierce, overtime $23,177, total pay, $74,972.
Firefighter D.J. Mann, overtime $22,928, total pay $77,935
Lt. D. French, overtime $22,570, total pay $89,003
Capt. C. Shipp, overtime $21,618, total pay $91,557
Capt. J. Bean, overtime $21,137, total pay $87,952