WILKES-BARRE — The fire department exceeded its overtime budget less than halfway through the year, and it’s expected to increase as the ranks are diminished by vacancies, sick and injury leave.
Through the end of May the department’s overtime was $59,770 or approximately 120 percent of the $50,000 budgeted for the year, according to a draft of the monthly financial report for the city’s $49.4 million balanced budget. It reported revenues of $25.7 million compared to $15.9 in expenses, leaving a balance of $9.8 million.
The reduced firefighters ranks are making it difficult to meet the minimum of 11 required for each of the four shifts, said Mike Bilski, president of the Wilkes-Barre Fire Department International Association of Fire Fighters Local 104.
“That’s how they ran into the overtime,” Bilski said Monday.
The situation is expected to get worse with approximately a half dozen retirements in the coming months in addition to the three spots that Mayor Tony George has decided not to fill, Bilski said.
“There’s really not a whole lot of options,” Bilski said.
The union is set to begin negotiations with the city on a new contract and will submit its proposal at the end of the week. Bilski declined to discuss the terms.
The department is funded for 70 positions and Chief Jay Delaney said he’ll be asking for that many next year when he meets with the administration to formulate the 2019 general fund budget.
When Delaney started with the department in 1981 there were 104 firefighters. It’s down to 66, he said. The workload has not followed the same path and the department is being asked to do more with less, however.
“We do much, much more than put out fires,” Delaney said.
According to the department’s 2017 annual report the amount of fire and emergency services calls has risen over the past five years to 12,141 in 2017 from 10,164 in 2013.
The department responded to 143 fire calls in 2016 and 132 in 2017, the report said. The majority of calls were for rescue and emergency medical service, 2,089 in 2016 and 2,375 in 2017.
The city ambulance calls are counted separately and have shown a similar upward trend to 7,822 in 2017 from 6,521 in 2013.
“We haven’t missed a call yet,” Delaney said.
Presently there are three vacancies, six people out on long-term injury and two on Family and Medical Leave, Delaney said. For the department’s purposes, that’s a whole shift needed to staff two fire engines, an aerial ladder truck, two ambulances and an assistant chief.
“We actually can’t go below 11,” Delaney said. But in order to maintain that minimum, the city “either has to hire firefighters or pay overtime.”
“That’s what driving this,” Delaney said
The city will be without the benefit of the $1.1 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant awarded in 2016. It allowed the city to retain six firefighters for two years. The final allotment of $350,000 was budgeted this year and runs out next month. The city will cover the cost to maintain the firefighters through the end of the year.
But the near term expenses were on the mayor’s mind. It’s unlikely the vacancies will be filled, he said.
“Actually we’re only short two and our grant expires the end of this month,” George said.
From his perspective, factors other than the vacancies were responsible for the overtime costs.
“But that’s not what’s causing this,” George said. “I think there’s nine or 10 people on workmen’s comp. You got two or three on vacation. You always have somebody off sick. That I can’t control.”
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.