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Editorial: Clearwater fire chief 'comp time' system needs review

Clearwater officials have begun paring the city budget, looking to cut services they consider nonessential, such as recreation and library programs. However, it would be wrong for officials to cut services residents value without first examining city government from top to bottom for ways to operate more efficiently.

For example, is it efficient for the city to pay almost $100,000 in overtime in one year to nine employees in the city Fire Department?

According to a Sunday story by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Demorris A. Lee, assistant and division chiefs in the Fire Department are paid what the city calls "comp time" when they work more than their regularly scheduled hours, even though all of them are salaried employees.

In the private sector, salaried employees don't generally qualify for overtime pay. They work the hours required to get the job done and are paid their straight salary. That's the way it is for most of the managers/supervisors in Clearwater city government, too.

But in 2005, the city began requiring two assistant fire chiefs on duty at all times. Because they had just enough people to fill the requirement, if one of the chiefs was sick or on vacation, another chief had to work all that person's hours. The city concluded that it would be unfair to require chiefs to double their hours without any increase in pay. So in early 2006, Clearwater started paying the division and assistant chiefs in the Fire Department overtime.

The decision has been a financial windfall for some chiefs. Consider operations chief Richard Riley, who pulled down $31,620 in "comp time" last year in addition to his $80,672 salary. Or assistant chief Danny Jones, who made an extra $16,937 above his $69,029 salary last year. Or assistant chief Donald Magness, who topped off his $69,029 salary with $10,249 in comp time last year.

According to city records, the nine chiefs worked 3,475 hours of comp time last year. That seems like a strangely high number of sick and vacation hours.

The need for better supervision in the Clearwater Fire Department was apparent after the fatal Dolphin Cove condominium fire on Island Estates in 2002. When the city hired Chief Jamie Geer in 2004, he pushed out the top deputies he inherited and brought in his own people.

The department's management structure also was changed. Managers were not union like the rank and file, and they were expected to be active supervisors during all shifts to prevent some of the problems that had been revealed by investigations of the Dolphin Cove incident.

Another change: The department's lieutenants were no longer allowed to "act up" to a supervisory role if a chief was absent.

Other large fire departments in Pinellas don't pay "comp time" to salaried employees, regardless of the hours they work.

It has been six years since the Dolphin Cove fire. Substantial sums have been invested in correcting training deficits, improving equipment and hiring experienced chiefs to guide the department in new directions.

Safety must always be a priority, but perhaps it is time for the City Council and city manager to review the department's management policies, staffing and pay plan with an eye toward saving money for other city needs.

Editorial: Clearwater fire chief 'comp time' system needs review 05/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 16, 2008 2:02pm]
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