Spokane Fire Department budget skyrockets by $ 5 million

Mayor Nadine Woodward pledged this week to conduct an audit as the city revealed it expects the Spokane Fire Department to exceed its 2022 budget by $ 5 million.

Sick leave usage and overtime costs have skyrocketed in recent months, according to city officials, who have pledged to analyze ways to keep spending under control.

Woodward on Tuesday announced a full external review of leave usage.

“This particular issue came as a surprise, so I think we need to dig a little deeper into how we got here,” Woodward said in an interview.

City council members strongly disagreed and said they had raised concerns about the fire department’s budget for months and overtime spending practices for years.

The union, too, was baffled. The surprise of officials “doesn’t make sense to me,” said Randy Marler, president of Local 29 of the Spokane Fire Union.

“We have had staff shortages, and this is not unique to the Spokane Fire Department, the general fire department nationwide struggles to fill the seats of fire trucks every day. “said Marler.

The administration has asked city council for approval of a special budget ordinance to remove $ 5 million from the city’s reserves to cover the deficit, which the city’s chief financial officer Tonya Wallace called Monday “financial bleeding”.

Monthly overtime costs are typically around $ 232,000 per bi-weekly pay period, but have climbed to about $ 576,000 per pay period in recent weeks, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.

“We have to understand the data, we have to understand the reasons behind it and the steps that can be taken to move forward,” Coddington said.

The city budgeted approximately $ 56 million for fire and emergency medical services in 2021. The overrun was reported during routine year-end budget preparations conducted by city finance staff. , said Coddington.

The audit is expected to take up to six weeks, so its results will likely not inform the 2022 city budget, which is expected to be voted on by city council on December 13.

From the union’s point of view, the math is relatively straightforward. It has 71 seats in fire trucks across town to fill each day according to Spokane’s minimum staffing levels. Overtime is only performed when those seats are not filled, Marler said.

Since 2018, the city has only recruited 18 new firefighters, but many more than that have retired, Marler said. The pandemic has caused more retirees than expected, he added.

Marler wants to see the data to confirm that there has been a significant increase in leave. If there was, he suggested it might have coincided with the arrival of the delta variant, which affected even vaccinated firefighters, he said. There was an increased awareness of not coming to work sick.

Spokane city council members were singled out in their reaction to the budget overrun on Monday when it was explained to the committee on public infrastructure, environment and sustainability.

Several noted that they had drawn attention to the fire department’s budget problems for months or, in some cases, years.

Council members have long called for a survey of overtime spending in police and fire departments, and funded a study on overtime in the 2021 city budget. The city regularly spends more than overtime for public safety than budgeted.

“I have asked for this overtime survey every year because every year we have had this problem, for eight years,” said City Councilor Candace Mumm.

Mumm said the city’s reluctance to initiate the study cost him millions of dollars.

The study is expected to begin in December pending city council approval, Coddington said, and will be conducted by an outside consultant. It was delayed for several months as other priorities took precedence, he said.

The $ 110,000 Overtime Compensation Study is separate from the Audit of Leave Usage and Practices, for which there is no cost estimate.

City Councilor Lori Kinnear noted she raised concerns about the budget at a committee meeting in August after speaking with a firefighter who raised the issue.

“I haven’t received any definitive answer as to why this happened or whether anything would be done to keep this under control,” Kinnear said.

Kinnear urged the administration to provide the exact surplus instead of a request of around $ 5 million.

“I am deeply disappointed. I feel like I was not listened to… yes, I certainly expect there will be changes in the future, ”said Kinnear.

City Councilor Betsy Wilkerson said the budget request sounded like a “punch,” but said she planned to back it.

While awaiting the outcome of the audit, the City has taken measures to limit spending.

The 331-employee department has recruited nearly 100 candidates for 20 open positions, according to Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. He will begin interviews after the Thanksgiving vacation and send new recruits to the academy in February.

The department lost six employees and 10 others remain on leave after the state’s vaccine mandate took effect in October, but the increase in leave utilization has occurred in the previous months. Sick leave in November is running below October, Coddington said.

This will help fill vacancies left by retirements and more than a dozen firefighters who have left due to Governor Jay Inslee’s coronavirus vaccination mandate.

“We have a clear direction to ensure that our daily staff is maintained, that there is no decrease in service and that this commitment has been clearly expressed throughout the process,” said Schaeffer.

Marler agreed that the February academy offers “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Schaeffer issued a directive to limit overtime to emergencies only and ban spending on non-essential equipment.

City administrator Johnnie Perkins told council the mayor had asked the city’s chief financial officer to analyze its internal controls, tighten spending, and make sure city leaders understand their budget and goals. expenses.

“There is a lot more that will continue on this effort over the next few weeks and months,” Wallace assured the board.

The exceedances are unique to the fire department and have not been seen to the same degree in the police department, Coddington said.

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