Who’s making the big money?

We take a look at what Clark County, city of Vancouver employees earned in 2014

By Amy Fischer, Columbian City Government Reporter

Published:

 

Education level key in public vs. private-sector pay

Battalion chief answers the call, wherever it is

'Perfect storm' cited in juvenile detention OT

Median base salary of public employees

Vancouver -- $45,012

Clark County -- $54,708

Number of employees

Vancouver

Men -- 981 (59%)

Women -- 675 (41%)

Total -- 1,656

Clark County

Men -- 903 (52%)

Women -- 826 (48%)

Total -- 1,729

Number of employees who made $100,000 or more

Vancouver -- 214

(25 were women)

Clark County -- 94

(20 were women)

Number of women on top-20 base salaries list

Vancouver -- 3

Clark County -- 8

Number of women among top-20 paid workers (including overtime and additional pay):

Vancouver -- 0

Clark County -- 6

SOURCES: City of Vancouver, Clark County

Education level key in public vs. private-sector pay

Battalion chief answers the call, wherever it is

‘Perfect storm’ cited in juvenile detention OT

Median base salary of public employees

Vancouver — $45,012

Clark County — $54,708

Number of employees

Vancouver

Men — 981 (59%)

Women — 675 (41%)

Total — 1,656

Clark County

Men — 903 (52%)

Women — 826 (48%)

Total — 1,729

Number of employees who made $100,000 or more

Vancouver — 214

(25 were women)

Clark County — 94

(20 were women)

Number of women on top-20 base salaries list

Vancouver — 3

Clark County — 8

Number of women among top-20 paid workers (including overtime and additional pay):

Vancouver — 0

Clark County — 6

SOURCES: City of Vancouver, Clark County

Firefighters and police dominated last year’s list of the city of Vancouver’s 20 highest-earning employees, many of whom racked up tens of thousands of dollars in overtime.

Fire Battalion Chief Kevin Griffee beat out City Manager Eric Holmes as the city’s top-paid person, grossing $193,638 last year, of which $69,431 was overtime pay, according to salary data The Columbian obtained through a public records request.

Overtime hours pushed many midlevel employees to the summit of city pay, particularly those workers in public safety. In all, 13 firefighters, two police administrators, two police officers, two City Hall administrators and the Public Works director made the most money in the city.

Vancouver Fire Chief Joe Molina and Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain say this is business as usual: Police and firefighters are collecting mountains of overtime — in some cases amounting to half their annual salaries or more — because their departments require minimum staffing levels to function. When people aren’t available to work, substitutes must be called in, and they’re paid overtime for extra hours.

Last year, maintaining around-the-clock minimum staffing at the fire department required 28,444 hours of overtime, costing about $1.48 million, Molina said. (Training and other employment opportunities brought the department’s total overtime spending to $1.9 million.)

The most expensive part of a fire department isn’t going to a fire, Molina said. It’s the cost of having people and equipment at the city’s 10 fire stations ready to deploy within 90 seconds, 24 hours a day. This requires 40 people on duty at all times, which is the driver of overtime, he said.

“They’re just sitting there like a cocked weapon,” he said. “That call at 2 in the morning when somebody needs us — in an average of 5 minutes, a fire engine pulls up with three highly trained individuals ready to take care of your heart attack. … That doesn’t happen by accident.”

Minimum staffing

The Vancouver City Council sets the fire department’s service level, requiring emergency workers to arrive on 90 percent of calls within 8 minutes. Achieving that service goal requires having equipment available to respond swiftly and safely, and a minimum of three people per fire engine and four people per ladder truck are needed, Molina said.

In addition to financial considerations, staffing levels are set based on risk, and Washington public policies state that service levels should be different in urban, suburban and rural areas, Molina said.

Although the city establishes fire service levels, fire unions have the right to weigh in on staffing levels from a personnel safety perspective during contract bargaining. For this reason, trying to reduce the number of people on a fire engine in Vancouver would be tougher than doing away with the whole engine, he said. Cities of Vancouver’s size don’t use fewer than three people per engine, although in rural areas, the staffing level is usually two people per engine, mostly because that’s all those rural areas can afford, Molina said.

The Vancouver City Council hasn’t discussed reducing staffing levels on fire engines or ladder trucks, Mayor Tim Leavitt said, adding that at one time there was a push to add a fourth firefighter to the rigs.

Although the staffing levels for fire engines and trucks are fixed, Molina is launching a new effort to improve emergency service while controlling overtime costs. Starting June 22, the fire department added four firefighters/paramedics to work 10-hour shifts rather than 24-hour shifts, providing more flexibility to schedule people to work during higher-demand times. The four new employees will drive SUVs, said Molina, noting that a 10-hour shift is cheaper than a 24-hour shift. (Firefighters are salaried, but an hourly rate is used to calculate overtime.)

Very little of that 24-hour shift is spent hosing down a burning building. Molina said 72 percent of the fire department’s calls for service are medical-related and 2.6 percent are for fires, including structures, cars, sheds and grass. A firefighter’s 24-hour shift includes three meal periods, two breaks, roughly six hours to sleep (not necessarily six consecutive hours) and an hour to work out, he said. The rest of the time goes to rig checks, restocking equipment, writing reports and training.

All 24 hours of the shift are paid because the firefighters are always ready to respond to calls.

As the community grows and changes, city officials will examine whether further changes in operations are warranted, Leavitt said. Currently, there are no plans to cut the fire department’s budget.

Pay bumps

In some cases, members of the Vancouver Fire Department have more than doubled their annual pay by working overtime. When someone is needed to fill a vacancy, those are the first employees to raise their hands, the chiefs said.

“We do have people who like to do overtime,” Molina said.

Fire battalion chiefs have regular overtime opportunities because of how the system is structured, he said. Two of the department’s six battalion chiefs are on duty at all times. One of them must be an actual battalion chief, not a fire captain filling in. The two battalion chiefs manage five fire stations each, performing administrative duties, handling problems, taking command at the scene of emergencies and being accountable for all staff.

“It’s an ongoing, pretty high-level, complex job,” Molina said, adding that the workload is too much for one battalion chief to handle.

Battalion Chief Griffee, one of three Vancouver Fire Department members certified for incident management and wildland firefighting, worked 448 hours of overtime in 56 days. Last year, he was part of the landslide response team in Oso. (See story on Page A5.)

In all, the state reimbursed Vancouver Fire $47,400 for Griffee’s outside work, Molina said. While he’s gone, someone else must step in for him, which leads to overtime. Firefighters are paid time and a half for overtime, and battalion chiefs are paid time and a quarter, he said.

Overtime vs. new hires

If overtime costs are high, why not just hire more people? Factor in benefits, and the cost of adding a new staff member skyrockets.

“I know the connotations of overtime are bad, but it’s a reality,” Molina said. “Overtime is a cheaper way of staffing than hiring additional people.”

Molina estimates each entry-level firefighter costs $100,000. That’s an annual salary of about $63,000, plus roughly $27,000 in benefits such as health insurance, vacation and sick leave.

Entry-level police officers start at salaries of about $59,000 a year, plus benefits. Then they undergo about a year of training before hitting the streets on their own.

And so, the chiefs include overtime expenses when forecasting their department’s finances.

“It’s a line item on the budget,” said Molina, who has been fire chief since 2011. “It’s the same money whether 10 people worked (overtime) or 100.”

Last year, Molina allocated $1.6 million of his total $33.5 million budget for overtime. He ended up spending $1.9 million for overtime across the fire department’s 178 employees eligible for minimum staffing overtime. However, because of vacancies (there are currently 12), the department finished 2014 with a surplus of $265,000.

“We’re doing a very good job of servicing the community for a very reasonable cost comparable to what other places are doing,” Molina said, noting that fire departments in some cities, such as Spokane, cover fewer people than Vancouver but have more firefighting resources.

The police department’s 2014 overtime budget was $1.635 million, but final overtime costs tallied $1.875 million out of the $32 million budget. The department, authorized to have 190 sworn officers, stayed within its budget for salaries and benefits because of staffing vacancies, of which there currently are six, McElvain said.

“If we had more officers, could we reduce overtime? Yes,” McElvain said. “Would we eliminate overtime? No. You’re always going to have that need for the overtime.”

Overtime rules

Rules limit the number of consecutive hours firefighters and police may work. Vancouver firefighters, who typically work 24-hour shifts, work about 49 hours a week. They’re not allowed to work more than 72 consecutive hours (three days in a row), and it’s uncommon to work more than two full overtime shifts back-to-back, the chief said.

Vancouver police can’t work more than 16 consecutive hours, McElvain said. Patrol officers work five days on, four days off, five days on, four days off, and then five days on, five days off. That essentially would make them available 14 days a month for overtime duty.

Last year, filling patrol vacancies required 15,000 hours of overtime, equating to about $950,000, McElvain said. Add in additional work requiring overtime, such as for investigations, training and late night calls, and the patrol overtime was about 17,000 hours. That amounts to roughly eight full-time jobs, he said.

However, all that overtime wouldn’t be eliminated by hiring eight more officers, he said.

“It doesn’t equal out evenly where you can call somebody in and say, ‘I need you to work two hours here and go home.’ You’re going to call in full shifts to fill those vacancies,” McElvain said. “Just because you increase staffing, it doesn’t cleanly eliminate overtime. You can minimize it or mitigate it, but it doesn’t eliminate it.”