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City Controller: Fire Bureau Pays Too Much in Overtime

In his first audit of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire, City Controller Michael Lamb has found that the department exceeded its budget for overtime pay in 2010 and 2011, and the 2012.  So-called "premium pay" came in at an oversized $11.5 million.

Lamb said the "out of control" problem of massive overtime pay ultimately stems from a contract provision of minimum daily staffing requirements. With 163 Fire Bureau employees required to be on duty at any given time, any time an employee calls off work it requires another to take his or her place with overtime pay. Lamb suggested that the city administration try to lower the minimum staffing requirement during contract negotiations for 2014.

"That goes to a lot of questions," said Lamb. "That goes to questions about, How many engines do you need? How many firehouses do you need? How many other pieces of equipment do you need, because that's really what drives that minimum staffing number."

Not only is Fire Bureau "premium pay" taking up an overly large chunk of the department's yearly budget, said Lamb, but it also has long-term financial implications.

"Firefighters are the only bargaining unit in the city whose pension is not based on base salary; it's based on total salary," said Lamb. "So as premium pay goes up, the long-term effect of the pension, which is already significantly underfunded, it has that long-term financial impact that is harmful."

The controller said firefighters, who can retire at age 50, often end up getting decades of pension checks worth up to 75% of their base salaries, whereas other city employees generally get pensions worth just 50% of their former pay. Lamb, who is expected to officially announce his run for the mayor's office in January, said he thinks the administration of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl should put more pressure on the legislature to change state law on firefighter pension calculations.

Long hours of overtime could also hurt firefighters' job performances, said Lamb, which he suggested could lead to a public safety issue.

The audit, covering 2010 and 2011, also determined that the Fire Bureau generally does a very good job of keeping up with national standards for fire response time. Lamb said the number of fires per year in Pittsburgh is down from decades past, but there has been a slight uptick in conflagrations over the past year. The controller said the Ravenstahl administration should demolish more hazardous buildings to reduce fire risks.

The Ravenstahl administration has not yet responded to a call for comment.