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Fire department OT over budget, asking city council for an additional $375K

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With 10 weeks in 2017 left, the Duluth Fire Department is projected to run over budget for overtime expenses.

The department is projected to spend about $1 million on overtime expenses in this year. They are budgeted for a little more than half of that, about $600,000. They are now asking the Duluth city council for an additional  $375,000 for overtime pay. 

Fire chief Dennis Edwards said there is a number of factors that lead to them being over budget.

"It's a combination of military leave, and some injuries that happen because of the nature of this work," said Edwards.  

Some military staff members routinely need days off for their military duties, and other firefighters have to fill in, which often leads to overtime.  Edwards said the amount of service members they have on staff has grown in recent years, and they are valued members of the staff.

"They're great people, they come here very well trained, and understand what we do here," Edwards stated.  

Edwards said the the additional $375,000 they need can't be made up for by cutting staff. 

"We're answering 13,000 calls a year, with 16,000 runs, and we have to have the right amount of firefighters going out the door to answer those calls," said Edwards. 

Pete Johnson, president of the Firefighters Union, says the department can't operate without the requested money. 

"If we start decreasing our staffing, and delaying our response times, those fires are going to get worse, people are going to be put in more dangerous situations, it's going to require our firefighters to put themselves in more dangerous situations," said Johnson.  

But Johnson says overtime is part of a bigger problem. He says the department could use between six and nine additional firefighters on staff.

Johnson said, "It's cheaper to hire and train new firefighters than it is to pay old firefighters overtime to fill those same positions." 

Johnson says having an extra two to three firefighters on staff every day would pay immediate dividends, "That would be enough to offset 24 to 48 to 72 hours of overtime every single day," he said. 

The city says it's not as simple as just hiring firefighters. They would also have additional benefits costs. Duluth's CFO says hiring more firefighters just isn't in the budget. 

Edwards says it comes down to a matter of safety, "The council understands what we're up against here, and keeping the right amount of firefighters on duty every day is a very important function for the city," he said. 

If the city council approves the request, the money would come from city reserves, where there's about $13 million. 

The city is also expected to get a $100,000 reimbursement from the state because a portion of overtime spending is used for training.

City council will vote on the request on Monday Oct. 9th. 

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