District 7 gets $130,000 surprise

The 2003 Fire District 7 budget took weeks of deliberation and a lot of unwanted pruning to fit within the district’s financial outlook for next year.

Therefore, the fire commissioners who approved many of the cuts got a nasty shock last Thursday night when Fire Chief Mike Brown announced there was an unexpected last-minute budget item in need of immediate funding.

Make that a $131,000 last-minute budget item.

Every year, the district allows its firefighters to choose how they want to spend the 96 hours of holiday time allocated to them. The firefighters, who have to make their decisions by February, can choose to take the time off — with the understanding they must stagger their holiday time so no station is understaffed — or they can take the time as extra straight-time pay.

In the past, Brown said, most firefighters have opted to take the time off. This year, however, the trend swung drastically to holiday pay.

“It was a surprise to us, but most of the employees chose compensation over time off,” Brown said.

The holiday pay has never been a separate budget item in the past, Brown explained, because it’s usually been absorbed into the regular salary budget. Because most firefighters chose time off, holiday pay was never a major expense.

Until now.

“We counted it up, and it’s way more than we could have absorbed,” Brown said.

Because there’s no room in the budget for an item of that size, the money will have to come directly from unencumbered funds — a type of emergency account used for unexpected expenses.

Brown said the district suspected there might be an unusually large demand for holiday pay this year, so the unencumbered fund was left well-padded. The warning signs, he said, began in 2001, when firefighters started steadily requesting more and more paid holiday time in lieu of time off.

“In 2002 it became apparent it was going to be a trend,” Brown said.

He said he doesn’t know what caused the sudden upswing in holiday pay requests — he didn’t ask. But he pointed out the district personnel on average were much younger a few years ago, and now tend more toward family age.

“It’s the typical growth of a family and a fire department,” Brown said.

There’s nothing the district can do to prevent such a huge call for overtime from happening again in the future, Brown said. Under the terms of the firefighters’ union contract with the district — originally drafted in the 1980s — they have the unalienable right to choose holiday overtime if they wish.

“It’s an employee choice,” Brown said. “It’s not an employer ability to decide.”

He also said the district is prohibited from even encouraging employees to take holiday time off. That would be coercion, Brown explained.

What the fire district can do is budget for the 100 percent overtime contingency from now on. Although this means the fire district will have to do even more shuffling to make future budgets balance, it also means the district will not be caught at a loss if the overtime trend continues.

“That is a liability against the district and we have to ensure we have the money to cover that,” said Fire Commissioner Rick Metzger.

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