Ironton leaders analyzing servicesPublished 12:00am Sunday, January 22, 2012
They came with information; some of them had printed material with graphs and statistics.
When the Ironton City Council Finance Committee met Thursday, four city department heads came to discuss the city’s 2012 budget and how their offices impact it.
The fire department
Although the quintessential image of the firefighter is that he goes in a big red truck to quench house fires, Fire Chief Tom Runyon said firefighting these days has an expanded scope of responsibility.
The Ironton Fire Department also handles hazardous materials (hazmat) response, water rescue, extrication and rescue (for car accidents), arson investigations and a plethora of public education programs. The IFD even has a program for troubled juvenile firebugs.
Of Runyon’s budget, personnel and equipment are the two biggest line items. There are 17 employees at the fire department, including Runyon. Sixteen are union members.
According to information from Runyon, the starting salary for a firefighter, based on a 56-hour week is $11.43 an hour. With 30 months of experience, a firefighter makes $12.30 an hour; those with rank or extra responsibilities earn anywhere from $12.96 to $13.57 an hour.
“I don’t want you to get the wrong impression,” Runyon said. “I don’t think we’re underpaid and I don’t think we’re overpaid for a city our size. I think it’s about medium.”
Runyon offered paperwork showing the annual salaries of Ironton firefighters, mostly in the $33,000-$35,000 range, is lower than that of firefighters in other areas of the state and the nation.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a fireman nationally was $45,505 or $21.66 per hour; this is 10 percent higher than the median salary for an Ohio firefighter.
Acknowledging criticism of the city for paying such a large portion of employees’ health insurance and retirement pickup, Runyon said he thinks firefighters are not overcompensated and have not grabbed more than their fair share of city dollars. Runyon said, in the past, the city has agreed to pay more of the cost of health insurance and retirement in lieu of pay raises.
Firefighters get an incentive for not using sick days. Runyon said two or three of his employees are able to collect the $75-per quarter bonus. Each firefighter who successfully completes an annual fitness test gets $500 a year as an incentive to stay in good physical shape.
His budget includes a clothing allowance of $1,720 per employee each year. Each firefighter is required to have one full dress uniform, four classic uniforms and four work uniforms with shoes and coat.
As for equipment, Runyon said turnout gear for one firefighter is $1,600, not including the airpacks that cost an average of $5,000 each. Equipment is paid for out of his capital improvements money.
Runyon said the city’s contract with the firefighters union requires four firefighters per shift; Occupational Safety And Health Administration rules also require this. Two firefighters are to remain outside any burning structure and two are to go inside initially; the two outside would rescue the two inside if the situation became worse.
“It’s unsafe to perform a rescue in a hazmat environment without two in and two out,” Runyon said.
Runyon said the city’s fire fee fund accounts for $334,000 a year toward his budget. This fund was established in 1995 to purchase one new fire truck and meet other needs. He said this was at a time when the department was understaffed, underfunded and under equipped, even to the point of using hoses that were 50 years old and other equipment that was 30 years old.
Runyon said he has gotten more than $500,000 in grant monies in the past 15 years. These grants have been used for everything from hazmat equipment to the first responders program. A grant is money given for a specific purpose — to purchase new turnout gear, for instance; it cannot be used for anything other than that one very specific purpose. Grant money cannot go into the city’s general fund to, pay for raises or office equipment unless that is the stated purpose of the grant.
In his hand-out, Runyon mentioned his budget must also cover such expenses as office supplies, utilities, maintenance on vehicles and facilities and gasoline as well as food for firefighters.
“How many calls did you respond to last year?” committee member Aaron Bollinger wanted to know. Runyon said his firefighters were called out 575 times in 2011, everything from car accidents to first responder calls to trash fires to car fires to structure fires. Of those 575 calls, 60 to 70 calls were for actual structure fires.
The police department
Police Chief Jim Carey has an unhappy distinction among city department heads.
“We are the only general fund department that has been cut,” Carey noted.
Carey has 16 full-time officers, four full-time dispatchers and one part-time dispatcher. In an effort to curb costs, he said he has eliminated three officer positions in the last few years. He pointed out that in years past, the police department had frequently asked for more money at the end of the year to cover deficits; he said when he became chief he has tried to live within his budget that was $1.3 million last year.
In addition to salaries, Carey pointed out his biggest increases are in hospitalization and pension costs. But he indicated people may not realize why the city has the agreements with its unions that it does.
“I think what people need to understand, the city, back in the 1990s, would come and say ‘if you don’t take a pay raise we will pay some of the pension pickup.’ It was cheaper for the city at that point,” Carey explained.
Carey said he thinks his officers are underpaid when compared to officers in other cities. It is not fair, he said, to discount an Ironton officer’s contribution to his community simply because that community is small.
“We do the same job, face the same risk they’re (officers in larger cities) facing,” Carey said.
Carey gave committee members a two-page hand-out that showed an Ironton officer makes between $14 and $15 an hour, while the state average is $20; Ironton sergeants are paid $16 an hour, which is approximately $8 less than the state average and slightly more than half the national average. According to Carey’s information, Ironton captains are paid a little more than $17 an hour, which is $10 below the state average and half the national average.
Carey told the committee that part of the $80,000 overtime costs in 2011 were paid for through a contract with the housing projects; other hours were accrued during holidays and public events such as Rally On The River.
Like Runyon, Carey’s officers get a uniform allowance that amounted to $30,720 last year. This pays for clothing; duty belts, boots and other necessities come out of the officer’s own pocket.
As is the case with the fire department, police officers who do not use sick time are paid $75 every quarter.
“This rewards the employees who are doing the right thing,” Carey said.
Police officers also receive a firearms incentive. Both the sick day and firearms incentives amounted to $4,175 in 2011.
One line item on Carey’s budget has dashes, not figures, for the years 2009, 2010 and 2011. Carey said his tight budget did not allow for capital improvements, hence, he hasn’t spent any money for this.
A proposal to eliminate police dispatching and allow a county agency to handle the city’s police calls would save $197,000 a year, Carey said. He added he would still need one clerk. Carey said if he kept two clerks, eliminating dispatch would save more than $130,000.
Carey said he has worked with the city: he’s cut, scrounged and even eliminated capital improvements in the past to save the city money.
“Further cuts will affect our safety,” Carey said. He said right now, officers work two per shift, sometimes three but not often.
Bollinger inquired about the mileage on police vehicles. Carey said he has eight with less than 50,000 and five cars with in excess of 100,000.
“Mine’s a ’99 and it has over 100,000 miles,” Sgt. Pam Neal Wagner told the committee.
“Did we have a plan at one time for replacing the fleet?” committee member Kevin Waldo asked.
Carey said there was a plan and some cars should have been replaced in 2011 but finances did not permit it.
One head, lots of hats
“I am a department of one,” Katrina Keith said when she approached the finance committee. Her position as the city’s benefits specialist was created in 2008 in response to the then-growing problem with worker’s compensation. Premiums were escalating.
Keith made worker’s compensation a priority and began putting in place state-suggested programs to help combat the escalating costs.
“It’s taken four to six years to see improvement,” Keith said. “Premiums are reducing, programs are working,” Keith said. “We get almost $10,000 in discounts just for taking part in various programs.”
She said the transitional work program is a money saver because it encourages injured workers to return to work with light duties instead of staying away from the job altogether.
She said the city is in the process of developing a first aid/CPR training program for employees. She would also like to see a wellness program established for employees, a proactive, front-end way of tackling the rising health care costs.
As benefits specialist Keith also acts as a human resources specialist, supervises unemployment claims, oversees health insurance and voluntary insurance. She also handles all Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requests and maintains the seniority list for the local American Federation of State County And Municipal Employees.
In the new year, Keith would like to become more involved in economic development and in the revitalization of the downtown. She would like to take on the task of marketing and public relations, a position the city does not have but needs.
She would work with the city’s businesses and would work to make the RoNa a focus.
“We need to establish an identity for Ironton,” she said.
She would like to return the health insurance and other voluntary benefits to the finance department, where it was in the past.
She would also like to give the safety training program to the fire department, an agency better equipped to supervise it. Keith said she has talked to Runyon and she said he is comfortable with this.
Committee chairman Mike Lutz asked Keith if the FMLA was being abused, noting that both police and fire departments have substantial overtime.
“No one is abusing FMLA,” she said. “Sick leave, possibly.”
Keith said she does track sick leave.
A depart of one and one-third
In response to Keith’s musing that she was a department of one, code enforcement officer John Willis joked he was a department of one and one-third.
But he really isn’t kidding.
Susan Dooley, who is his secretary, also works for the water filtration plant and the street department.
Willis is responsible for city buildings and various permits.
“Last year we did 177 permits which generated approximately $10,650,” Willis said.
Willis said at one time some service workers (contractors, etc.) didn’t know they needed a permit to work in the city, although most do now.
“Good or bad, my reputation is getting out there,” Willis said.
Willis said his job is to make sure all contractors play by the same rules.
He also conducts checks on the buildings, elevators heating and air systems and other city facilities. He also is the relief supervisor for the water works superintendents.
“On Jan. 6 or 7, the mayor proposed increasing the service worker license. What do you think?” Bollinger asked.
“I think an increase should be entertained,” Willis replied. “I’m not sure what level we want to price it at. I would look at a flat fee.”
“Is there recourse if someone is violating (the service worker ordinance?” Bollinger inquired.
“We do have the authority to shut a job down. There is a fine for certain things, if they violate,” Willis said.
The finance committee will meet at 5 p.m. Thursday prior to the regular city council meeting at 6 p.m. The supervisors for the sewer and water works will talk to council.
Lutz has indicated that, while the committee is meeting every Thursday to discuss the budget, members may need to meet more than that to hammer out the new spending plan.