Waterbury fire overtime balloons

Tuesday, December 30, 2008 12:34 AM EST

WATERBURY -- The fire department has more than doubled what it spends on overtime -- growing from $613,000 to about $1.4 million -- since the state oversight board returned financial control to the city.

Fire Chief Michael Maglione blamed the increase on a wave of firefighter retirements and a high number of accident-related absences that forced the understaffed department to rely on overtime to cover its shifts.

Maglione said the hiring of seven firefighters last year, and the return of most of those seven firefighters injured in the May 2007 collision of a fire engine and ladder truck that killed Capt. John Keane, have "stabilized the problem."

Maglione predicts the department will end the fiscal year with a balanced $18 million budget. Overtime will be over its $1.1 million budget, he said, but savings in other areas, such as firefighter salaries, will offset that overage, he said.

The city estimates fire overtime will reach almost $1.3 million in fiscal year 2008-09.

That is a far cry from the amount spent on fire overtime in the years before the oversight board gained control over city finances and the ability to impose labor deals on city unions.

In fiscal year 2003-04, the year before the board imposed a new contract upon local firefighters, overtime costs reached almost $2.2 million. In fiscal year 2004-05, when the board negotiated the new contract, overtime dropped to $1.2 million.

In fiscal year 2005-06, the last full year of oversight board control of city finances, the department's overtime cost dipped to $613,300. But a wave of veterans opted to retire early before oversight board changes to the pension plan went into effect.

That left the department short-handed and poised to turn to overtime, Maglione said.

In 2006-07, overtime spending crept back up to $836,300. The board was dissolved about midway through the fiscal year. In May, toward the end of the fiscal year, the fire engine crash occurred, and weekly overtime averages that had begun to drop went up.

In 2007-08, when seven people injured in the accident were still out, overtime costs soared, sometimes reaching as high as $63,000 a week. The account evened out when the city hired seven new firefighters to fill some retirement vacancies.

Mayor Michael J. Jarjura said he has full confidence in Maglione's ability to "deal with the overtime issue." Jarjura said he didn't have any reason to believe the department had become lax about overtime since the oversight board left.

"If I thought that was the case, I'd be all over it," he said.

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