June 18—When Columbus officials rolled out a plan to cut the number of paramedics on trucks responding to medical emergencies, they said it would save on the city Division of Fire's bulging overtime budget.
Six months later, overtime in the division is on track to bust its budget for the sixth time in seven years and reach its highest level in years, but fire Chief Kevin O'Connor said the plan is working.
Without it, overtime might be even higher, he said.
The division is on pace to spend more than $10.5 million on overtime this year, according to a Dispatch analysis of payroll records, up from about $7.9 million in 2016. The city budgeted $6.9 million for overtime in 2017.
O'Connor said that isn't an indictment of the plan he rolled out in a December news conference with Mayor Andrew J. Ginther to begin running medic units with one paramedic rather than two.
The change was supposed to allow the city to spread its paramedics further and make it easier to assign firefighters who don't have that training to medic units that are short a person. In April, when the plan was implemented, both EMS overtime and overall overtime dropped.
Through the first nine pay periods of the year, though, overtime for emergency medical services jumped 46 percent, from about $706,000 to more than $1 million.
Fire personnel working on medic runs accumulated an average of 1,597 hours of overtime in the first nine pay periods of 2016. That has jumped up to 2,208 hours per pay period this year.
O'Connor estimates that the change will save the city between $1 million and $3 million on overtime this year.
"The biggest problem we are having is we expanded service this year," O'Connor said, but the division hasn't added staff.
Five medic units that used to operate part time now run full time, O'Connor said. The division hired an EMS supervisor to oversee its medic units, and it is reopening Station No. 2 next week after about 18 months of construction.
About 30 firefighters a day are training for paramedic certification, up from 15 in 2016. Fourteen others are being used to grade tests for new recruits. Replacing them on the street costs the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime.
None of those affected overtime in 2016, though, when overtime actually dropped compared with 2015.
The Columbus Division of Fire spent spent an average of $22,231 a day on overtime in 2016. But it is spending even faster on overtime this year: $28,702 a day through June 3.
Finance Director Joe Lombardi pointed out in a quarterly memo to Ginther that fire overtime was contributing to a projected deficit in the Department of Public Safety's 2017 budget.
The finance and fire departments work together to come up with the overtime target each year, Lombardi said, but the number requires some "guesswork."
"It seems that we've had this conversation before and we certainly want to work with the chief and make sure that we give him his resources that he needs," Lombardi said. "That has to be a discussion we have going into the next budget cycle."
In a report submitted to city administrators in May, O'Connor wrote that the division's 1,503 uniformed staff is 111 people short of what is needed. The division has 23 recruits in its current class, but it already has had 24 retirements this year.
Ginther has pledged to add more firefighters, including an additional class this year, but the department's staffing level has largely remained the same since 2000 even as the city grows.
O'Connor wrote that the recruit class costs about $38,500 per pay period in overtime for instructors and trainers. The extra paramedic training costs about $67,000 per pay period. He expects the reopening of Station No. 2, at 150 E. Fulton St., to add another $67,000 in overtime for each pay period.
Some firefighters are earning tens of thousands of dollars a year working extra hours, in many cases bumping their annual earnings to more than $100,000. Overtime to this point has been voluntary for firefighters, O'Connor said.
The average firefighter made nearly $87,000 last year, including about $4,000 in overtime. No firefighter earned a base salary of more than $100,000 last year, but overtime and other earnings meant that 258 of them earned more than that.
Fifty people in the division earned more than $150,000 in 2016, all of them supervisors.
The top overtime earner in 2016 was Christopher Jackson, a firefighter who made about $144,000, including more than $46,000 on overtime. He was one of 12 firefighters who earned at least $30,000 in overtime last year.
Assistant Chief James Davis was the highest earner in the division, making more than $210,000, including tuition reimbursement, in 2016. Davis is not eligible for overtime.
"I want to see zero overtime and hire the right number of firefighters. The reason there's overtime is we're 100 people short in staffing," said Dave Montgomery, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 67. "Hire the right number of people to accomplish the mission."
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