V.I. Fire Service overtime costs, which were growing out of control last year due to retirements and resignations, have come down 44 percent since last year, Fire Service Director Clifford Joseph told the Committee on Finance during budget hearings Thursday.
In Fiscal Year 2015, October to May overtime was more than $1.6 million, while this year the overtime cost for the same period was $911,605, Joseph said. If overtime continues to accumulate at the same rate for the remaining quarter of the fiscal year, that would suggest an annual overtime cost of $1.2 million, versus more than $2 million last year.
The Fire Service had a total FY 2016 budget of $18.2 million, of which payroll is $12.4 million and total personnel costs, including pension benefits, Medicare and Social Security taxes come to $17.2 million. If total overtime costs are in the range of $1.2 million that would constitute 7 percent of payroll, including pension and benefit contributions.
A common private sector rule of thumb is that overtime should be kept at no more than 5 percent of payroll, although some argue it is more cost effective to have somewhat higher overtime costs and lower permanent employment.
For comparison, the V.I. Police Department is looking at overtime costs of 28 percent of payroll for FY 2016.
Last year, then-Fire Service Director Eugene Farrell said the Fire Service had lost 67 firefighters over the past eight years, forcing the department to incur more overtime to properly man trucks and stations. It had 234 employees then. At the time, Farrell said the Fire Service would need 105 firefighters to completely eliminate overtime.
Thursday, Joseph said the department had lost 70 employees in the last nine years, but hired 28 new firefighters in January, partially offsetting the loss. The new firefighters "have helped to prevent station closures due to lack of personnel," Joseph said.
The department has requested 23 more firefighters territorywide and more than 300 applicants took the written test earlier in the year. Qualified applicants will begins agility testing later this month.
Meanwhile, another 79 employees are eligible to retire, and if they do, overtime will go up, Joseph said.
Fire Services is seeking a FY 2017 appropriation of $20.4 million, up $2.2 million from last year. Most of the budget, $19.6 million, is for salaries and benefits.
Finance also heard budget testimony from the Division of Personnel. Personnel Director Milton Potter Director laid out his agency’s request for $4.15 million, a $669,690 increase from last year. The increase is due to a rise in personnel costs based on salary increases as well as office supplies and planned initiatives, Potter said.
Sens. Marvin Blyden, Tregenza Roach, Samuel Sanes and Clifford Graham were present for the hearing. Absent were Sens. Myron Jackson, Positive Nelson and Kurt Vialet. Non-committee member Sen. Justin Harrigan was also present.