BROOKSVILLE - The Hernando County Fire Department has accrued $585,000 in overtime in an eight-month period and County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said he wants answers because it seems excessive.
Fire Chief Mike Rampino said the formula used to compute overtime is complicated and subject to federal labor laws. He is preparing a report for the March 11 commission meeting to show how the numbers for the county's 243 employees are calculated.
Rampino said he's already turned in salary records to Assistant County Administrator Brian Malmberg which explain the overtime process. For example, a large part of the pay is due to firefighters' holiday pay included in the overtime line item.
Overtime for fire departments across the country, given their different work schedules and shifts, are subject to different rules as spelled out by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, he said.
Fire departments don't follow the model of typical office workers who work 40-hour weeks and are generally paid overtime for extra hours.
Rampino said there is no attempt to increase the overtime hours and stressed that the department's payroll is currently operating under budget.
"It's not like we're giving it out just to give it out," he said.
By law, the only legitimate reasons for firefighter overtime is if someone calls in sick, an employee is out for up to 12 weeks due to the Family Medical Leave Act or a firefighter is out on a worker compensation claim.
Strip away the holiday time and the county fire department has spent $394,318 in overtime from the start of the 2013-14 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1 until now, according to Laura Steele, finance manager with Hernando County Public Safety.
That equates to $1,637 per person. Divided by 10 pay periods, that comes to an average $163.77 per person per pay period.
Bob Kanner, deputy chief for the High Point Volunteer Fire Department, knows first-hand about how fire departments are somewhat shackled by federal labor laws when computing overtime for firefighters.
"It's a totally different ballgame," said Kanner, who served eight years on the former Spring Hill Fire Rescue District.
Firefighters are required to work shifts of 24 hours on and 48 off. So if a firefighter calls in sick, the district commander would have to hold someone over from the prior shift or arrange to have another firefighter come in on his or her day off.
"That was a very common occurrence," Kanner said. "No matter how you look at it, (overtime) is a large number and the only way to decrease that number is to hire additional personnel. Either way, you're going to spend the money."
Fire departments have trucks and equipment that must be ready 24-7 for emergencies, Kanner said and that increases the likelihood of overtime.
"People don't have heart attacks by appointment and fires don't start by appointment so, 24-7, that equipment needs to be up and ready and running with the proper personnel on it," Kanner said.
Dukes said he raised the question of firefighter overtime after a constituent contacted him about what he thought was an exorbitant amount. He expects a full accounting of the process and how it compares to previous years at the March 11 meeting.
"There's nothing wrong with looking at it," he said.