By Douglas Moser
---- — METHUEN — The Fire Department has used up three-quarters of its $1.1 million overtime budget halfway through the fiscal year and would need $400,000 more to continue spending as it has so far.
Fire Chief Steven Buote said a shortage of four firefighters and several others out on injury leave caused the department to deplete its overtime budget quickly. A fire engine and an ambulance were taken out of service to relieve pressure on the overtime budget, he said, and most of those on leave are back on duty.
Additionally, more than a half dozen Methuen firefighters are in or recently graduated from the Massachusetts Fire Academy, which means they can fill assignments currently covered with overtime shifts.
Mayor Stephen Zanni said he does not intend to ask the City Council for more money for the department’s overtime and has told Buote he must make his budget work through June.
“I expect him to get through with what he was given,” Zanni said.
According to city payroll numbers, the Fire Department spent $821,632.45 in overtime through Jan. 11, almost 75 percent of the total overtime budget.
That averages out to $30,430.83 per week, and if the department continues spending overtime at that rate, it would need $1.525 million to get through the entire budget year.
Without more money, the department would have to spend an average of about $11,500 per week.
Buote said much of the highest overtime spending happened over the summer. At one point, the department had 12 people out on extended injury or illness leave, an unusually high number, he said. Now, there are two out, and he hopes he can keep to less than $10,000 a week and possibly put the ambulance, assigned to Central Station, back on line.
Last week, the department spent about $5,800 in overtime, he said.
Through the recession, Buote said the department was down 15 people from 2009, with three people laid off and the other positions not filled when an employee left. The department has refilled most of those positions since then and now is down four firefighters.
But because of a backlog at the Massachusetts Fire Academy, where firefighters must train before being able to be assigned to a fire truck, he said he is short eight people to keep all the trucks and ambulances in service. In order to keep them in service, he called in firefighters to work overtime shifts until the overtime budget reached a critical point.
“We had to make the tough decision. I kept all apparatus in service as long as I could,” Buote said. “I pay close attention to the overtime budget. I know when we come to that time where we’re at the breaking point and say we have to take an apparatus out of service.”
Seven firefighters are completing or have completed the nine-week training at the fire academy since July, and another will start in March.
Zanni said he plans to cut the department’s overtime budget for next year while working with Buote to use existing staff in ways that do not drain the overtime budget.
The mayor said he does not intend to fill the four firefighter positions this year, but could add them to a future year’s budget.
Last fiscal year, which ran from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, the mayor recommended $800,000 for overtime, but the Fire Department asked for and received just over $1 million before that budget was approved. The department received $1.1 million this year.
In 2009, the department spent just under $700,000, but in 2010 overtime jumped to about $780,000. Overtime came in at $755,000 in 2011 and $980,000 in 2012, according to city budget documents.
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