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Pottstown has struggled with its Fire Department budget for some time. The debate over merging fire companies to cut overhead has been suggested. Currently Pottstown has four fire companies with paid drivers and administration. The majority of the firefighters are volunteers. The borough gives the four fire department money and pays the health insurance for the drivers. Each fire company must then raise any additional funds themselves.
Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Allentown have obviously larger fire departments with more paid staff. Volunteerism is down. A huge problem these three cities have experienced is a drastic increase in overtime. Scranton’s Fire Department racked up just under one million dollars in overtime for 2010 (more than double what was budgeted). The Scranton Fire Department had a budget of $14.3 million for 2010.
Allentown’s Fire Department overtime budget was blown in 2010 when $1.4 million was spent on overtime. Wilkes-Barre spent $322, 958 on overtime which was nearly double what was budgeted.
A big culprit is sick time. Sick time use in Scranton has been rising for the last three years. When one firefighter calls out sick, another firefighter is called in and paid overtime to cover the shift. Scranton is changing their schedules, minimum manning requirements per shift and instituting fire company brownouts to save money this year. Only $83,950 was included for Fire Department overtime in the city’s $74.9 budget for 2011.
The Scranton Fire Department blames being a 168 man department with only 150 firefighters on the payroll. Overtime was being used to “make up the difference”. Like Scranton, Allentown also has minimum manning requirement per shift which contributes greatly to their overtime. Wilkes-Barre Mayor, Tom Leighton said his city experiences a 25-30 percent call off rate in every shift, which burns up overtime.
In Scranton, the average firefighter costs the city $84,000 in salary and benefits every year. This will increase substantially after the arbitration award kicks in. Mayor Chris Doherty’s salary and benefits come to about $65,000 per year, as a point of reference. Firefighters get 18 sick days per year, which can be accrued up to 120 days, 240 days or unlimited, depending on their hire date. Firefighters get paid for unused sick days at the termination of their employment. They are reimbursed anywhere from 25 percent to 100 percent, depending on their date of hire.
I hope Pottstown Council carefully studies these issues before making the paid drivers employees of the borough. If this comes to pass, we need to learn from these three cities to avoid a bill we cannot afford.