by Tony E. Rutherford, News Editor
Mayor Documents HFD OT "Pattern," Council Says Management Issue to Fix Staffing

A newly enacted Wolfe administration policy that determines when a firefighter calling off is replaced came under scrutiny at the Wednesday, September 5, finance meeting.  The policy does not permit replacement of workers who call in sick or who call off from an off the job injury. Mayor Wolfe supported his decision with an overtime document that he said demonstrates a "pattern" that required intervention.

As previously reported the policy has occasionally left the city with less than the minimum 25 staffing level leaving trucks out of service for a day or more depending upon the call ins.

Under projections presented to Finance Committee members , both councilman Jim Insco and Steve Williams proclaimed, “What’s the [budget] crisis?”

After adjustments already made within the current fire department budget by adding ten, not eleven, new hires ($42,500 savings) and delaying the hiring of the ten from July 1 until mid-August ($42,500), the Fire Department , based on current assumptions, do not have an Unscheduled Overtime (U-OT) budgetary crisis. The new hires which report to stations October 5, following training, level the U-OT curve to maintain either 25 or 28 firefighter staffing.

WOLFE: Non Replacement Sick Day Call ins Designed to Break “Pattern”

However, the projections provided by the administration that maintains U-OT at (in the words of councilmember Steve Williams) “a razor’s edge” of the approved budget incorporates Mayor Wolfe’s policy designed to curb 14 “patterns” of  sick day call ins before or following vacation time.  Wolfe stated explicitly “we are not accusing anyone of abusing sick time,” allowing the patterns to speak for themselves.

Councilmember Joyce Clark described herself as “flabbergasted,” suggesting that “limiting” due to perceived misuse is “not fair” to the community or people, “even if the [alleged misuse] is occurring.” She compared the circumstance  to a school system filling a teaching position:

CLARK: If a teacher has to be out, a teacher has to come in and replace them. If a custodian or bus driver is out, a custodian or bus driver has to come in and take that position. For whatever reason, if a firefighter is out, a firefighter will be called in, whether it’s a vacation or a personal thing. I don’t think our firefighters, police or other city workers abuse calling in.

Joyce Clark
Joyce Clark

WOLFE: We would hope not. Following a pattern [referring to documents] on fourteen occasions and five on two occasions, sick time was taken from the drop day. We hope they are not using that just to take off.

CLARK: I see what you are saying, but that is an administration problem [that should be addressed] by the chief,  the department, and the people who are having this occurrence.

WOLFE: I hope and pray none of these are being abused.

CLARK: But, limiting the deputies from calling out more firefighters because one of these occurrences is happening is not fair to the other firefighters or citizens…

WOLFE:  That’s exactly right.

CLARK: Saying that we cannot have a replacement is unfair whether or not this is occurring… even if it is occurring it still should not prevent replacement firefighters from going in to protect the city.

WOLFE: But if you run over the budget because of it…

Mayor Kim Wolfe
Mayor Kim Wolfe

CLARK: From what we are seeing we are not going over budget.

WOLFE: You do if the pattern continues

CLARK: Projected going forward, we will be within the budget.

WILLIAMS: We knew going in until we have the new firefighters in the station, we would be paying some unscheduled OT. What’s perplexing to me is that while it’s in excess of what was budgeted , when you look at the savings by other positions not being filled , you’re not exceeding [the budget].

Clark termed the pattern of one or more sick days following some vacations an issue that should be handled intra-departmentally.

Still, council member Sandra Clements stressed, “We can’t put firefighters or the public in jeopardy. I think we need to re-visit the policy.” Williams shared the same opinion “encouraging” that it be reexamined by the fire department and administration.

Council member Rebecca Thacker agreed that the current staffing quandary was “unacceptable.”

Williams summarized , “It appears with proper management , we are dealing with a false alarm,” adding that in an abundance of budgetary caution the implementation of the no call in staffing policy occurred  prematurely “on the fifty yard line,” rather than when the cuts were needed.

ELLIS: Many Variables

After the meeting, Fire Chief Randy Ellis  did not indicate that the U-OT issue would be solved if the old policy was put back  into effect. “There are lots of variables” that could impact it, Chief Ellis said. Still, Ellis was delighted that earlier Wednesday, the ten new hires had taken their oath to protect the citizens of Huntington.

Later, Williams went on record questioning the imposition of the policy that does not allow for firefighter replacements for sick day, grief day or off the job injury days.

WILLIAMS: Administration Misunderstanding Budget Management

“It demonstrates a misunderstanding as to how to properly manage a budget,” Williams said, “No matter how you look at it… front, back, sideways, or inside out, there’s not a budget crisis [that requires short staffing]. Appearance are that a feeble attempt to demonstrate the administration has finally learned the lesson city council has preached the last 3 ½ years that the city must live within its means… or, there is another budget crisis on the horizon which we have yet to be told about. Whatever the motivation, our firefighters cannot be placed at risk and our neighborhoods safety must not be sacrificed.”

HNN is awaiting a response from Mayor Kim Wolfe.