Fire overtime hot topic at budget hearing

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Of the fire department’s roughly $30 million proposed budget for next year, the biggest expenditure, outside of salaries, is overtime at $3.5 million.

At the budget hearing Monday night, Fire Chief William McKenna and Union President Paul Valletta explained why the overtime expense must be budgeted at this cost and discussed a statewide issue, which is that firefighters who retired on sick leave, some who have even passed on, aren’t yet approved for the state pension, leaving local departments to cover for their yearly salaries with overtime expenses.

McKenna said Cranston is the largest fire department in the state that has a state pension and has to deal with this issue.

Valletta claimed that the issue was caused by a lack of paperwork processing by the state, and because the firefighters who had to be put on leave, including some with cancer, haven’t been scheduled to see a state doctor yet, which is required for pension approval.

He said that there are currently 20 of Cranston’s 196 firefighters on paid leave from a variety of injuries and illnesses, including Valletta who is still on paid leave from the Jan. 29 chemical fire on Elmwood Avenue. McKenna added that of those 20, “two or three” would end up having to retire and attempt to claim their state pension. Until they receive it, the department will have to pay their salary and cover for them through other firefighters working overtime.

“I’m paying $100,000 for them to sit home and $150,000 for time and a half for the guys who cover for him,” Mckenna said. “I want that to be zero. It’s a burden on taxpayers here to have to cover those costs.”

“It’s a financial burden on the city,” Finance Director Bob Strom added.

He said that while it’s in the state’s hands, the city is over-contributing to the city pension, paying overtime for firefighters, and basically paying for a position that can’t be filled.

Valletta said that it is a requirement for the city to have at least 41 firefighters on at all times, which he said is “woefully below” a standard set by the National Fire Protection Association for the amount of firefighters that should be on at a time.

He said that Cranston hasn’t had a staff increase since 2000 and sits at the full complement of 196 firefighters right now, which includes 12 firefighters, including two females, who were just hired.

Another item discussed at the hearing included a potential for upgrading the fire stations in the coming years. Although there are no current plans, McKenna said that some fire stations were built as long ago as the 1920s, and have “had people working inside of them 24/7 since.” He said they will be “coming to a time in the next four to six years” when they’ll have to make a move at a few of the older stations.

Another budget item discussed was two new trucks that are being added to the fleet, which were paid for as part of already-approved $2 million bond. McKenna said Cranston has been using a North Kingston truck for the last eight months and needed to added them to the fleet.

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