Ever since layoffs at Pasco Fire Rescue became a strong possibility, union officials and county administrators have haggled over how to find the money to save jobs.
Administrators have pressed the union to forgo a higher holiday pay rate or a hard-won 5 percent merit increase from 2008. Union members have resisted, saying they want to preserve jobs but also protect base wages that are already lower than those in surrounding counties.
What hasn't come up publicly: Thanks in large part to overtime pay, eleven firefighters made more than $100,000 last year, and nearly 80 more fire and rescue workers pulled in more than $70,000.
All but five of those workers made at least 20 percent more than their base salaries, according to county documents.
The highest paid was a captain with gross wages of nearly $110,000 — almost double what county officials calculate to be his annual base salary of $57,015.
Federal law recognizes that first responders routinely work well over the typical 40-hour workweek and doesn't start counting overtime until after 53 hours per week in a 28-day cycle.
County officials say that all of their emergency services workers will get overtime each year because their schedules — 24 hours on, 48 hours off — eventually trigger the additional time-and-a-half pay required by federal law.
On average, each worker ends up making about 19 percent more than his base salary because of the schedule, according to the county personnel department.
Still, there is unscheduled overtime, too, some of which is scooped up by firefighters looking to earn extra money or beef up their pensions, officials say.
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The total staff — roughly 425 — is large enough that about 135 people could be available for each of the three 24-hour shifts, said Assistant Chief Mike Ciccarello.
Only 119 need to be working each shift to ensure each station has at least three firefighters per engine and two per ambulance.
By contract, though, nine of those 135 workers can be on vacation on any given day. On top of that, workers often call in sick. Or they are injured and can do only light duty. Or they have emergencies.
The upshot? Each day, about five people are working unscheduled overtime, according to Ciccarello.
Currently, there are 29 vacancies in fire rescue that officials decided not to fill for fear that they'd have to let them go because of budget deficits.
County commissioners are considering cutting as many as 48 combat positions — half of them filled — and 20 rescue personnel. But they have as much as $12 million in unencumbered funds that they could use to "buy back" those positions or any of the rest of the 260 on the chopping block.
Ciccarello said filling those positions would no doubt ease the amount of unscheduled overtime. But with money being the issue these days, he said no one has analyzed whether it'd be cheaper to hire new people with benefits or continue the current practice of paying overtime.
Overtime isn't limited to actual work hours for fire rescue, as county officials are quick to point out.
Workers get overtime pay on holidays — even if they don't come to work. That's because under the union contract, holiday pay is figured at time and a half for 12 hours, said personnel director Barbara DeSimone.
The fire department's total overtime costs, counting both salaries and related pension benefits, reached $3.3 million in 2007-2008. That was nearly 10 percent of the total fire budget — and a nearly 60 percent jump from 2003-2004.
Total overtime costs for rescue personnel hit $1.7 million last fiscal year, a 34 percent increase from 2003-2004.
Overtime went up as staffing did. New workers were added as new stations came on line and the county caught up with industry standards and increased the minimum number of people who ride engines.
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Union officials say the salaries report proves their point that the department needs to fill empty positions — not cut them.
"The overtime is ridiculous," said union president Ralph Grant, who was the captain with gross wages of nearly $110,000. "Any time you have that much overtime, it's due to understaffing."
Grant emphasized that overtime pay isn't free money.
"Keep in context the amount of hours needed to be worked to get that," said Grant. "Try spending two days away from your family."
Lori Moore, a researcher for the national International Association of Fire Fighters union, said local governments with overtime bills aren't facing the fact that they should hire more people. The other option, she said, is to reduce the crew sizes required for vehicles, something that fire experts say would reduce response time and that the insurance industry views unfavorably.
"That's a dangerous alternative," she said.
County administrators argue the overtime pay is as much a function of federal law and union perks. Budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said that most of the vacancies are at the lower end of the rank, not among the senior captains pulling in six figures.
He said, too, that certain qualified firefighters can also make extra money if they "ride up": That is, they fill in for someone who is a higher rank and, thus, get the higher rate for that period.
"I don't think the majority of the overtime is caused by how many positions we have," he said.
Commissioner Ted Schrader says the salary figures undercut the argument that Pasco workers are underpaid relative to other counties.
"The firefighters in Pasco have an opportunity to earn a pretty good wage," he said. "I think the citizens are going to find that to be very interesting."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.