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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Heat Over Firefighters' Overtime

January 17, 1994

Westminster officials were right to ask the Orange County district attorney's office to investigate overtime payments to the city's firefighters to determine whether the money was spent for time actually worked. The probe will show if the city attorney is correct in claiming that firefighters did not earn the pay, an assertion disputed by firefighters' representatives.

What is not in dispute is that firefighters and paramedics have racked up large amounts of overtime in recent years. The numbers are laid out in an audit conducted for the city by the KMPG Peat Marwick accounting firm.

In 1986-87, the total overtime paid topped $340,000, according to city figures. In 1992-93, the amount was more than $860,000. Some firefighters regularly collected $20,000 to $40,000 a year in overtime, the audit disclosed. Figures such as these understandably are of concern to the City Council.

The investigation comes after years of tension between the city and the firefighters union, which represents all 63 members of the department except the chief. The council passed a plan to reform the department last year. The union challenged the plan in court and now supports a recall of the four council members who approved the reform.

Westminster Mayor Charles V. Smith, who disclosed last week that the investigation was under way, correctly said most of the firefighters are undoubtedly honest, hard-working public servants who do a tough job and do it well.

However, the city has been the victim of tough times in recent years. The state took property taxes that Westminster had counted on receiving, and a poor economy kept shoppers at home, substantially reducing sales taxes. The cut in revenues has made it more important than ever that the city save money and that all its departments cooperate in the effort.

The council's belt-tightening attempts included the Fire Department, which the city tried to streamline, asking it to all but eliminate overtime. But in less than three months after that, firefighters pulled in $283,000 in overtime, nearly four times the amount designated in the city's 1993-94 budget. The question is whether that amounted to an overtime "rampage" or was legitimately required.

A director of the firefighters' association said the group welcomes the district attorney's investigation. That's the right attitude. When the inquiry is over, both sides still will have to work together, because the city's money woes are not going to just fade away.

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