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Council OKs $3.5 million for firefighter OT

Friday, May 19, 2017 by Jo Clifton

After numerous arguments on the subject, City Council finally approved transferring $3.5 million from the Budget Stabilization Reserve Fund into the General Fund in order to pay for the cost of firefighters’ overtime Thursday. The high number of vacancies in the department coupled with a longtime commitment to make sure that there are four firefighters on each fire truck and the difficulties in recruiting because of a U.S. Justice Department consent decree have resulted in more overtime pay than expected. Not paying the firefighters through the end of the current fiscal year was never an option. But Council members Jimmy Flannigan, Ora Houston, Alison Alter and Ellen Troxclair voted no. Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told the Austin Monitor, “If we didn’t fund it the only thing that could happen at this point in time is for the Fire Department to go over budget. The amount of time it would take to retrain 900 firefighters to operate under a different model – that can’t be done this year. So, there was no option this year. The Council members that supported this vote pretty much said they had reservations but there’s no other options to us at this point in time.” Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association, provided this written analysis to Council and gave them the same explanation at the Council meeting: “To fully understand the effect that rising staff vacancies have on the overall AFD budget, we need to calculate the difference between the increasing overtime costs and the decreasing salary and benefit costs. In other words; when vacancies go up, OT goes up but salary and benefits go down.” For example, he said, an optimally staffed fire department operations division would cost more than $116 million. “In 2016 at 106 vacancies, AFD total costs were $4.3 million over optimal and in 2017 at 154 vacancies the total cost over optimal is $6.1 million,” Nicks said.

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