Auditor reports are usually dry documents, filled with math and line graphs and numbers that require thinking. They’re not usually fun or packed with sarcastic vitriol. Maui County Auditor Lance Taguchi’s latest report, “Audit of Premium/Overtime Pay of the Department of Fire and Public Safety” is a notable exception.
“‘How much is a life worth?’” the report starts off. “That’s a difficult question… with an even more difficult answer. However, if the Department of Fire and Public Safety’s (‘MFD’) Premium Pay and overtime costs are not controlled, soon taxpayers will be forced to answer.”
According to the report, Premium Pay in the County of Maui has ballooned in recent years. “In FY 2011, the County’s total Premium Pay was $10,698,946,” states the report. “By FY 2015, it had ballooned to $15,083,850, an increase of approximately 41 percent. The majority of the increase–65 percent or $2,862,448–occurred between FY 2014 and FY 2015… Of the County’s 20 departments, the Department of Police and MFD comprised over 67 percent or $10,087,371 of the County’s total Premium Pay.”
That’s a lot of money. After finding that this “rapid acceleration in overtime” wasn’t due to more fire-related incidents, Taguchi’s office ended up determining that the MFD’s staffing policy known as Rank-for-Rank Recall (which “fills absences of ranked fire fighters by calling in an equally ranked fire fighter at more costly time-and-a-half overtime”) holds a lot of blame.
“[W]e concluded the implementation of Rank-for-Rank Recall is the cause of the rapid acceleration in the Fire/Rescue Operations Program’s overtime costs between FY 2014 and FY 2015,” states the Auditor’s report. “During that same time, Rank‑for‑Rank Recall resulted in a 60 percent or $1.4 million increase in overtime costs for the same level of service, while simultaneously restricting the career paths and overtime opportunities to Fire Fighter I [the lowest fire fighter rank]. Rank-for-Rank Recall appears to have made Fire Fighter I the biggest losers.”
To fix this, the County Auditor recommended that the MFD “reorganize its existing staff by adjusting the mix of fire fighters in each Platoon (shift) to more closely match their historical absences (i.e., sick and vacation leaves)” and create a Relief Pool.
“The Relief Pool would provide the proper mix of staff, excess capacity, and enable the Fire Chief to assign and place appropriately ranked fire fighters who are already on shift to fill absences at less costly straight time instead of time-and-a-half overtime,” states the Auditor’s report. “If properly executed and managed, the Relief Pool could achieve Premium Pay/Overtime Pay savings to the County of approximately $1.9 million to $3.2 million per year.”
Sounds good, right? Not to MFD Chief Jeffrey Murray, who rejected the report outright. His 10-page response to Taguchi, dated Oct. 4, responded to the Auditor’s findings but ignored the recommendations (which gives the impression that Murray simply dumped the report in his department’s circular file). In his response, Murray said that union agreements govern staffing, the auditor failed to take into account “geographical restrictions” in staffing companies and that his department’s current deployment of fire fighters is fine in any case because “there are never any ‘extra’ Fire Fighters.”
Needless to say, Taguchi found this unconvincing.
“While Management is entitled to its own opinion, their responses are confusing and inconsistent with their actual staffing practices,” Taguchi wrote. “Ironically, the recommendations that Management now opposes are based on current MFD practice (emphasis in the original)–staffing Companies with four fire fighters instead of five, temporarily assigning qualified lower ranked fire fighters to higher positions, transferring fire fighters to different apparatuses/stations. For example, Management criticizes our recommendation to staff Companies with four fire fighters instead of five in order to allow for the creation of a Relief Pool. Management states that Companies need to have five fire fighters ‘…because each and every member of a company has a job to do’. If every Company needs five fire fighters, why did MFD staff Companies with four fire fighters 91 percent of the time in FY 2015 and 86 percent of the time in FY 2016?… Their claims that five fire fighters are needed per Company are just rhetoric and political maneuvering designed to distract from having to reign in Premium Pay/Overtime costs.”
Taguchi’s office gave Murray more time to respond to the actual recommendations, but Murray rejected that, too. In fact, in an Oct. 20 letter, Murray told Taguchi he had no right to be snooping around the MFD, and that his report actually poses a danger to the community.
“I believe it is not in your right to dictate to the Fire Department that you have no experience or inclination on how to operate or manage,” Murray wrote. “By doing so, you greatly disregard firefighters and compromise the safety of a [sic] community.”
Taguchi’s fiery (sorry, not sorry) and incredibly sarcastic response to that is pure journalistic gold.
“Regarding the Fire Chief’s statement that ‘…you have no experience or inclination on how to operate or manage’, we admit we do not have any experience managing a fire department,” the Auditor wrote. “However, this audit is heavily based on financial analysis and financial management of resources, or ‘numbers’. We KNOW numbers. And those numbers say the Fire Chief has a very big problem on his hands. Regarding the Fire Chief’s statement that ‘…you greatly disregard firefighters and compromise the safety of the community’, again, we are not firefighters and we must point out we never claimed to be. We believe one does not need to be a firefighter to recognize that the Fire Chief’s statements conflict with what the MFD is actually doing. Seeing our audit results mischaracterized–particularly when the findings and recommendations are based on the MFD’s current practice–makes us lose confidence in the Fire Chief.”
Click here to read the County Auditor’s report.
Photo courtesy County of Maui