Auburn council debates Fire Department overtime conundrum

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AUBURN — A working group formed to study the perennial issue of Fire Department overtime costs told the City Council on Monday that costs are driven mostly by the current collective bargaining agreement.

The study said that while there will be an ongoing effort to reduce overtime costs, the city should also consider a more “realistic” budget for overtime. 

Since 2014, the average overtime budgeted for the department has hovered around $200,000, but the city has spent an average of $527,000 annually in that span, which means it has been over budget by more than $300,000 each year. 

City Manager Peter Crichton said the group’s goal at the outset was to “gain an understanding of why (overtime) continually exceeds funds allocated in the budget.” 

Former Councilor Bob Stone, who served on the working group to study the issue, said the city should get its budgeting “into line with reality.”

“I’m satisfied that there are some things we can do to improve, but generally the department is being run just about as good as you can run it given the existing CBA in force,” he said. 

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However, a few residents, and even Mayor Jason Levesque, pressed fire officials to buck the trend. 

Fire Chief Robert Chase, who was serving his first day as the new chief Monday, said leading up to the next collective bargaining agreement, officials can look at different scheduling to see if cost savings can be found. 

If a firefighter uses a sick day, that accumulates 24 hours that need to be filled. 

Chase said the current staffing requirements are based on the bargaining agreement, which require a certain amount of personnel on to respond to calls for service.

According to the report from the working group, 90 percent of overtime is generated by contractual benefits or requirements, such as vacation, sick leave, mandatory training and minimum staffing requirements. 

“The Auburn Fire Chief often finds himself in a quandary,” the report states. “If one were to strictly adhere to the funding allowed in the budget, then, under the current model, the Chief would either need to deliberately violate the CBA or close a station at least part time.

“In this scenario, either option sets up the fire staff, city, and the Fire Chief for potential litigation and what may be an unacceptable level of risk.”

Chase said residents expect all neighborhood fire stations to remain open. 

It was pointed out several times during the meeting that the city hired three new firefighters late last year, which “has had a significantly positive impact on overtime for vacation coverage.”

Fire Department overtime was a contentious topic during budget discussions a year ago, when councilors pressed fire officials to resolve the continually high overtime costs.

In 2016, former City Manager Howard Kroll laid off five city employees because of budget constraints, including then-Fire Chief Frank Roma. 

Chase told the council that it would be “hard for us to find a silver bullet that we can put into place immediately to solve it,” but promised a larger collective effort and better data collection in place to help reduce overtime going forward. 

Councilor Leroy Walker said he believed the 24-hour shifts to be a problem, leading to stress or poor sleep. He also said the city may have to look at closing a station part-time on some occasions. 

However, union president Capt. Mike Scott said the department used to be on shorter, 10- to 14-hour schedules, which came with a different set of issues. Auburn currently uses 24-hour shifts, followed by three days off. 

Chase said 70 percent of personnel only use five sick days per year. 

Councilor David Young said losing multiple 24-hour shifts to sick time would be a “big budget buster for any company.” 

Mayor Levesque asked Scott directly, “Is your union going to play ball? Are you going to actively try to minimize the budget?” 

Scott said the increased staffing levels should help, but said the CBA is an agreement between employees and the city – not one-sided. 

“I continually hear ‘it’s the union, it’s the union,’ but ultimately it’s on both of us,” Scott said.

During public comment, Auburn resident Joe Gray there’s been “a lot of double-speak with very few numbers” regarding the overtime issue.

He told officials that it is disappointing the city cannot control the overtime budget, so instead it will simply increase the budget.

He also said the city should consider allowing per-diem staff, and for the city to utilize a third-party negotiator during union contract deliberations.

“The city is completely whitewashing the problem,” he said.

arice@sunjournal.com 

Auburn appoints new fire chief 

AUBURN — The city announced the appointment of Robert Chase as the new chief of the Auburn Fire Department, effective April 23. 

Chase, who served as Fire Chief for Rumford for eight years, came to Auburn in January, serving as Auburn’s Deputy Fire Chief.

Chase is stepping into the role for outgoing Chief Geoffrey Low, who recently became the new chief in Orono. 

Chase has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology from the University of Maine and is a certified fire officer and fire instructor. Additionally, Chase is a Maine emergency medical technician, serves on the Maine Fire Services Institute advisory board, and is involved with — and trains for — the Oxford County Incident Management and Hazardous Materials Team.

“I am confident that Chief Chase’s training, skills, experience and leadership will bring great value to the City of Auburn’s public safety team,” City Manager Peter Crichton said.

“He is a great addition to our leadership team, and he will help position the Auburn Fire Department to meet the challenges that lie ahead.”

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