The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
Nov. 25—Mayor Nadine Woodward pledged this week to conduct an audit as the city disclosed it expects the Spokane Fire Department to blow past its 2022 budget by as much as $5 million.
Sick leave usage and overtime costs have soared in recent months, according to city officials, who pledged to analyze ways to reign in spending.
Woodward announced a comprehensive external review of leave usage Tuesday.
“This particular issue did come as a surprise, so I think we need to do a little deeper dive into how we got here,” Woodward said in an interview.
City Council members soundly disagreed and said they’ve been raising concerns about the Fire Department budget for months, and overtime spending practices for years.
The union, too, was baffled. The surprise from officials “doesn’t make sense to me,” said Randy Marler, president of Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29.
“We’ve had staffing shortages, and it is not unique to the Spokane Fire Department, the fire service in general nationwide is struggling to fill seats on the fire trucks every day,” Marler said.
The administration has asked the City Council for approval of a special budget ordinance to pull $5 million from city reserves to cover the shortfall, which city Chief Financial Officer Tonya Wallace described Monday as a “financial bleed.”
Monthly overtime costs are typically about $232,000 per biweekly pay period, but jumped to about $576,000 per pay period in recent weeks, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington.
“We need to understand the data, we need to understand the reasons for it and what steps can be taken moving forward,” Coddington said.
The city budgeted about $56 million for fire and emergency medical services in 2021. The overage was flagged during the routine year-end budget preparations conducted by the city finance staff, Coddington said.
The audit is expected to take up to six weeks to complete, so its results likely will not inform the 2022 city budget, which is scheduled to be voted on by the City Council on Dec. 13.
From the union’s perspective, the math is relatively simple. It has 71 seats on fire trucks across the city to fill every day under Spokane’s minimum staffing levels. Overtime shifts are only worked when those seats aren’t filled, Marler said.
Since 2018, the city has only recruited 18 new firefighters but had many more than that retired, Marler said. The pandemic prompted a greater-than-anticipated number of retirees, he added.
Marler wants to see the data to confirm there was a significant increase in leave. If there was, he suggested it might have coincided with the arrival of the delta variant, which impacted even vaccinated firefighters, he said. There was a heightened awareness of not coming to work sick.
Spokane City Council members were pointed in their reaction to the budget overage Monday when it was explained to the Public Infrastructure, Environment and Sustainability Committee.
Several noted they’ve been calling attention to the Fire Department’s budget woes for months or, in some cases, years.
Council members have long called for an investigation of overtime expenses in the police and fire departments, and funded an overtime study in the 2021 city budget. The city routinely spends more on public safety overtime than what is budgeted.
“I have been calling for this overtime investigation every year, because every year we’ve had this problem, for the last eight years,” Councilwoman Candace Mumm said.
Mumm said the city’s hesitancy in initiating the study cost it millions of dollars.
That study is set to commence in December pending City Council approval, according to Coddington, and will be conducted by an outside consultant. It was delayed for several months as other priorities took precedent, he said.
The $110,000 overtime pay study is separate from the audit of leave usage and practices, for which there is not a cost estimate.
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear noted she flagged concerns about the budget during an August committee meetingafter speaking with a firefighter who raised the issue.
“I was given no definitive answer about why that occurred or that anything would be done to keep that in check,” Kinnear said.
Kinnear pressed the administration to provide the exact overage instead of a round $5 million request.
“I’m deeply disappointed. I feel like I wasn’t listened to … yes, I certainly expect there’s going to be some changes in the future,” Kinnear said.
Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said the budget request felt like a “sucker punch,” but said she plans to support it.
As it awaits the result of the audit, the city has taken steps to stem spending.
The department of 331 employees has recruited nearly 100 applicants for 20 open positions, according to Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. It will begin interviews after the Thanksgiving holiday and send the new hires to the academy in February.
The department has lost six employees and 10 more remain on leave after the state vaccine mandate took effect in October, but the surge in leave usage took place in the months before then. Sick leave in November is pacing below that of October, Coddington said.
That will help fill vacancies left by retirements and the more than one dozen firefighters who left due to Gov. Jay Inslee’s coronavirus vaccination mandate.
“We have clear direction to ensure that our daily staffing is maintained, that there are no decreases in service, and that commitment has been made clear through the entire process,” Schaeffer said.
Marler agreed the February academy offers “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Schaeffer has issued a directive to limit overtime shifts to emergencies only and prohibit spending on nonessential equipment.
City Administrator Johnnie Perkins told the council the mayor has directed the city’s chief financial officer to analyze its internal controls, tighten spending, and ensure city leaders understand their budget and expenditures.
“There is a lot more that is going to continue on this effort over the next several weeks and months,” Wallace assured the council.
The overages 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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