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Overtime at L.A. Fire Dept. Is Questioned

October 25, 2003|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

More than half of the 100 highest-paid employees at Los Angeles City Hall work for the Fire Department, thanks to hefty overtime checks that can eclipse their salaries, according to a city report.

The study found that 15 firefighters and inspectors earned more last year than Mayor James K. Hahn's $179,700 salary, as did dozens of command officers in the Fire Department.

The highest-paid firefighter reported $86,718 in base pay last year and $137,775 in overtime, boosting total compensation to $224,493.

In total, Fire Department employees accounted for 56 of the 100 highest-paid employees at City Hall. Hahn was 90th on the list.

The survey by the city controller's office did not include the semi-autonomous Department of Water and Power.

City officials said the report raised several questions, including whether the city has enough firefighters and paramedics. In addition, some wondered whether the city should better regulate overtime so that fatigue and stress do not affect those workers' performance.

"My questions would be: Is there abuse, and do we have good guidelines to make sure, for the firefighters who are willing to work, that the hours are reasonable?" said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who heads the council's Public Safety Committee.

Fire officials said the large amount of overtime is a reflection of the department's requirement that every field position be filled, even when a firefighter calls in sick or otherwise cannot work.

Still, Battalion Chief Bob Franco said the report also suggests that a new look at overtime procedures is warranted.

"We are concerned because of the appearance of it, and also because the overtime should be spread out more evenly among firefighters," he said. "Some people make themselves more available, but when someone works that many hours of overtime, there is a stress factor and a fatigue factor involved."

The report was requested by the staff for City Administrative Officer William Fujioka, who said he sought the information "in the context of looking at the city's budget status."

The document was released in the midst of the city's contract negotiations with the firefighters union, causing the union president to question the timing.

"If this was done in order to derail our contract, it's shameful," said Patrick McOsker, head of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City. He said the only reason firefighters are working so many hours is that the department is understaffed.

"That's a fair day's pay for a fair day's work," McOsker said. "That guys are able to work that many 24-hour shifts of overtime is phenomenal. I can't believe anyone would do this. These guys deserve medals rather than any kind of scorn."

With the city cutting services because of budget shortfalls that could reach $180 million or more next year, some City Council members said the overtime report justifies a new look at Fire Department practices.

"I think we need to see whether we should have more firefighters and less overtime," said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, head of the Government Efficiency Committee.

Franco said that hiring more firefighters would reduce the amount of overtime required, but that it was less expensive to use an existing firefighter working overtime than to train and employ a new worker.

The city controller's office, which did not identify employees by name in its report, lists the general manager of the Memorial Coliseum as the city's highest-paid worker with a salary of $274,000. But that official, Patrick Lynch, said his government salary is $150,000, with the remainder of his compensation coming from other sources.

The City Council's top advisor, Chief Legislative Analyst Ron Deaton, collected the second-highest salary, $257,157. A deputy fire chief who qualified for overtime and a deputy police chief earned the next-highest pay, each with compensation of $250,000. They were followed by the general managers of the harbor and airport departments, who received $243,900 and $234,800, respectively.

Fire Chief William Bamattre ranked No. 11, with a salary of $221,023.

Police Chief William J. Bratton, who is paid $248,700, was not included on the list because he did not join the LAPD until October 2002.

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