BRIGANTINE — Signs have sprouted from lawns across this resort community urging “yes” and “no” votes Tuesday in the special election that will decide the future of its controversial public safety director.
Advocates on both sides — “yes” means removing the position from city code altogether — say a vote cast in their direction would help curb labor costs that have contributed to perennial budget deficits.
The reality is significantly more complex.
Dan Howard, the man at the center of the storm, was appointed last June after the city’s departments of beach patrol, fire and police were left without chiefs through a combination of death, demotion and retirement. His salary is $70,000 with one day of vacation and sick time accrued per month. At the time, the city was — and still is — grappling with protracted contract negotiations and a labor force that accounted for nearly two-thirds of its annual budget.
Internal memos obtained through the Open Public Records Act outline a series of cost-saving decisions that proved unpopular among the city’s public safety departments.
This March, Howard issued two such memos. One stipulated that only one member of each platoon was authorized to schedule vacation at any given time. The other required that any firefighter recalled for overtime had to serve out the entirety of the minimum three hours of compensatory time they were afforded in their labor contract.
In the past, several officials said firefighters typically worked a fraction of the three hours they earned. Fire officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Howard addressed the overtime in his first week on the job. Memos in June and July set out procedure and schedule changes designed to decrease the need for overtime. By mid-June, before the city’s busy summer, the Fire Department had used $51,000 of its $90,000 overtime budget and police had used $73,000 of a budgeted $100,000.
Request forms from the departments, obtained through an OPRA request, show compensatory time — which can be taken as time off or, more commonly, cashed out at a later date — signed off to attend administrative meetings, funerals and patrol community events such as January’s Polar Bear Plunge.
“When you start saying no to overtime or special details, they say, ‘We’ve always done that before,’” Howard said, in a recent phone interview. “I understand that, but we don’t have the money for that anymore.”
Compensatory time decreased under the revised policies for the remainder of 2013, with the fire and police departments ending the year with $137,000 and $123,000, respectively.
However, this year has seen overtime in the fire department spike again. As of May 9, the department had accrued $155,753 worth of overtime at the 1.5-time rate. Anticipated accrual through year’s end resulted in the 2014 budget including a more than quadrupling of the department’s overtime budget, from $90,000 to $438,000.
Howard said the increase is due in part to the bad winter weather and required biennial training that happened to fall on this year. But that doesn’t explain all.
City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal said the spike is due in part to the captains — who are paid at a higher rate than lieutenants and other firefighters — taking more overtime and submitting requests to cash the time in now instead of at the end of their careers, as is general custom.
“They keep approving overtime even as the director says they can’t do it,” she said. “One captain will approve bringing in another captain during his shift.”
Blumenthal said each time the issue is brought up, the department’s labor attorney argues that the captains, as the officers-in-charge, are entitled to approve each others’ requests without input form the public safety director.
Mayor Phil Guenther, who has argued against having the director since before Howard’s appointment, said overtime would be greatly reduced if the city hired full-time firefighters instead of the part-time employees Howard has favored in filling in for recent retirements.
“If you had proper staffing, you wouldn’t have to call people in on overtime,” he said, adding that the director and manager are ultimately responsible for denying overtime requests.
But Blumenthal said the city’s restricted in what it can do, since the current Fire Department leadership has broadly interpreted their contract.
“Overtime is not capped at the budgeted figures,” she said. “If we keep incurring overtime the way we are now, I’m not going to have enough to cover that.”
Those contracts, which Guenther said are the most effective way to rein in expenses, are still the subject of ongoing negotiation.
Blumenthal said the police contract is “close to the end,” with the final version subject to a meeting between the city and the union’s attorneys. The fire contract, however, is in limbo without an official response to the city’s proposal.
Meanwhile, Blumenthal said she’s received resumes from members of both departments for the chief positions and will schedule interviews after Tuesday’s election. Having a permanent chief who’s willing to work with the administration on budget issues should put an end to the overtime issue, she said. While Blumenthal would prefer to keep a public safety director to ease that eventual transition, the outcome of Tuesday’s election may force her hand.
If voters decide to eliminate the director position, she said, “I would have to put chiefs in at an earlier point than I’d be comfortable with.”
Howard has held that position for nearly a year as the city has grappled with budget and chief issues.
Resident Sandi Williams, who helped lead the petition that led to the special election, said she was concerned for both safety and tax reasons.
“Some people don’t realize that we’re already paying for a fire chief,” she said. “That’s going to continue until we hire a permanent fire chief.”
Guenther said the stalling on the issue has not helped anyone in Brigantine, but election could bring that to a head.
“The indecision and uncertainty around this has really caused chaos,” he said.
The chaos Guenther and Williams allude to includes a series of lawsuits and labor grievances that have proven costly in recent months.
The four current fire captains, for instance, are now splitting an extra $52,000 per year when they serve as the officers-in-charge — more than the cost of promoting a single captain to chief.
Meanwhile, a court decision resulted in acting Chief Ray Cox receiving differential pay for the period he was improperly removed from the post last year. The city is appealing it.
Blumenthal said most of those costs are temporary compared to the permanent costs associated with the long-held practices Howard has tried to reverse.
There are many talented people in all three departments, some of whom have been receptive to change, Howard said. From the outset, he added, his role was not meant to be adversarial.
Regardless of the result of Tuesday’s election, he said, changes have to be made to make operations financially sustainable.
“If someone were to take over my place and think they don’t need to make substantial changes, then they’re really being short-sighted,” he said.
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
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