WATERTOWN, NY — City Council members say they are tired of firefighters calling in sick to work and driving up the cost of overtime expenses.
Wondering whether some firefighters misuse sick time, council members expressed their concerns to the fire department brass during a work session on Monday night about the proposed $42 million budget.
In what was, at times, a contentious discussion, Councilman Stephen A. Jennings wanted to know why 39 firefighters called in sick five or more times two years ago.
City Manager Sharon A. Addison told council members it cost the city $91,000 in overtime sick pay in 2015 and $107,668 in 2014.
Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso said she could not understand how “grown men” could call in sick so often, contending other city departments don’t have the problem.
“From where we’re sitting and seeing men call in sick five times or more, it worries us a little bit,” Councilwoman Macaluso said.
At one point, she scolded a handful of firefighters sitting at the back of council chambers when they showed their displeasure with the debate. The councilwoman threatened she’d have them removed from the meeting if they didn’t “show respect.”
The sick time issue came up Monday night amid stalled contract talks with the firefighters’s union.
In defending the use of sick time by firefighters, Deputy Fire Chief Russell J. Randall argued that overtime costs are increasing because of “staffing levels,” caused by the city manager deciding not to fill vacancies in recent years. To make sure that there’s enough coverage, other firefighters are called into work when their colleagues call in sick.
Council members are irritated because overtime costs add up quickly with firefighters working either 10-hour or 14-hour days, they said.
But Chief Randall emphasized overtime is expected to increase to $468,000 in the proposed fire department budget, since two firefighters and a captain will not be replaced after they retire in the coming months.
“I think you have to sharpen it and bring it down,” Councilman Jennings said.
In the 2011-12 budget, the city paid $246,979 in overtime costs with a staff of 80 and it climbed to $426,315 when the department was manned by 76, Chief Randall said. Sick days actually decreased from 266 days in 2012 to 233 in 2015, he noted.
Sometimes firefighters call in because they have doctor’s appointments and must miss the entire day since 15 firefighters must be on duty at all times, Chief Randall said, adding that someone else must be called into work to fill in for them.
A good chunk of the overtime expenses are being caused by a firefighter who’s on long-term sick leave because he was injured on the job, Chief Herman said.
According to departmental policy, firefighters who call in sick more than seven times during a year, must get a doctor’s slip. After council members wanted to know how they can check on whether sick time is legitimate, Chief Herman said they can only take a firefighter’s word and have no way to verify it.
However, Chief Herman recalled one instance when a firefighter had called in sick but was seen that day playing golf. When that happens, the firefighter loses sick time and cannot earn any for a year, he said.
The 71-member Watertown Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 191, has been without a contract since July 2014. The two sides met in a first mediation session on April 5; another one is scheduled for next Tuesday.
The city would like to make reductions in the contract that would cut staff and eliminate the 15-firefighter “minimal man” stipulation. The union insists it would be unsafe to have fewer firefighters.
The subject of sick days was not the only component that council members discussed about the $8.9 million proposed fire department budget. They also talked about leaving in $40,000 for a command vehicle to replace a 2001 Chevy Tahoe that Chief Herman drives and possibly removing $13,000 for a study about the Massey Street fire station’s aging heating system.
Council members have scheduled another work session for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. They intend to talk about the public works department and sewer and water budgets.
The city manager’s spending plan carries a 11.9 percent tax rate hike and a tax levy increase of 14.7 percent, from $8,414,664 to $9,649,505.
City Council members have made it clear they plan to get the tax rate down to the state’s 0.92 percent tax cap. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday night about the issue.
Under the proposed budget, the projected tax rate would be $9.06, up from $8.10 per $1,000 of assessed value. A resident with a house assessed at $100,000 would pay $96 more in taxes.