By David Foster, The Trentonian
Posted: 07/28/17, 8:33 PM EDT | Updated: 2 days ago
TRENTON >> Cops versus firefighters is one of the oldest rivalries in the books.
When it comes to overtime between the two public safety agencies in Trenton, that’s a feud that’s been brewing the past few years.
For the city’s fiscal year 2017 that ended on June 30, the fire department spent $1.04 million more than police in overtime, according to budget documents obtained by The Trentonian through a public records request. In total, firefighters received $3.52 million in overtime while the officers in blue took home $2.48 million, records show.
Given the constant crime and violence in Trenton, it is a point of contention for some police officers, who spoke to The Trentonian on the condition of anonymity.
“How do you justify spending more on fire OT than police when you have juveniles getting killed in the streets,” one ticked cop said. “If you’re a parent of a kid who was murdered, you should be really pissed. If public safety is your #1 concern, police should be getting more OT.”
Not only did the fire department spend more than police in OT this past year, they also went over budget by $121,270, records show. Police spent nearly $520,000 less from the adopted $3 million OT budget, documents outline.
Last year, however, was even worse for the fire department as they went over their $3.63 million OT budget by nearly $777,000.
Defending the department, the Trenton firefighters union president Wayne Wolk said Friday it all comes down to manpower. With 21 new recruits joining the department in April, the union president said the department is up to full strength with 225 firefighters.
“Obviously, if they don’t keep us manned at the proper staffing level, the overtime is going to go up,” Wolk said. “When they put the class on, it drives the overtime down.” Wolk said a comparison of the overtime numbers from the periods of January 2016 until July 2016 and January 2017 until July 2017, the department’s overtime actually went down 50 percent. The Trentonian has no way of confirming this since the budget numbers provided only go by fiscal year.
Wolk said the police’s criticism of the fire’s OT is “misguided.” He said he would not be upset if a cop got overtime.
“If that’s what we need to protect the city, that’s what we need,” the union boss said. “At the end of the day, it’s just two unique, different jobs that are both needed in the city. They’re more out front. Our job is more, ‘Thank God the fireman is there when I need them.’”
To address the fire department’s OT spending, the city will enact tomorrow placing three men on trucks, instead of the usual four.
“They have different scenarios that they are using to address the overtime issue,” Trenton Business Administrator Terry McEwen said Friday. “When appropriate, they go with three-man crews as opposed to four-man crews. They have a number of scenarios that they are using to reduce overtime.”
McEwen said this strategy has been used “on and off” for a few years to reduce overtime.
Wolk, however, called it “very shortsighted,” though he admitted it reduces overtime.
“It puts a strain on the department,” Wolk said, noting the department also responds to 10,000 medical calls per year. “If I needed 24 people today to fight a fire, I need 24 people tomorrow. If it takes an extra truck, then that extra truck is coming from the city somewhere.”
The union president also outlined that a safety problem with a three-man engine is that probationary firefighters who are still in training will be on a truck with a veteran without backup.
“Now, we’re relying on them and the citizens are now going to rely on them,” Wolk said “They’re not yet as qualified to be out there on their own.”
In contrast to fire, police are still down nearly 40 officers. The department is budgeted for 234, but only 197 positions are filled. Before the massive layoffs in 2011, there were 372 officers on the streets.
Despite, the lack of staff, the police managed to stay under budget this year after going $150,000 over the previous fiscal year.
A new union contract in 2015 prompted some of the decreases in OT by giving a one-time 11.75 percent raise in return for 12-hour shifts for a total of 84 hours in a two-week period, replacing 10-hour shifts.
Councilman Alex Bethea said he was “caught off guard” when reached for comment Friday about the fire OT.
“I would agree that if there was going to be an excessive amount, I think that it would be with the police department,” the councilman said. “That is a little bit excessive. We just hired some new firefighters within the last year or so, which is supposed to be cutting down on the OT. I don’t recall us having that many fires to generate that much OT.”
Bethea believes much of the fire OT is used when firefighters call out sick or take vacation and people are called in to fill vacancies.
“That was the problem we had with the policemen before we got that new contract,” the at-large councilman said. “Given that new contract with the police, that kind of solved that OT problem a little bit. Now we’ve got to concentrate on the fire to see what’s going on over there. We’ve got to find out what’s going on in the department.”
City firefighters work a schedule of 24 hours-on and 72 hours-off for a total work week of 42 hours. There are 11 companies with seven firehouses with 52 men on per shift
Wolk said problems arise for OT when higher-ranking members, such as captains take off. There are 44 captains at the 11 companies that require four shifts covered.
“I don’t have any extra people,” the union president explained. “So if I have a captain take off, it’s going to generate an overtime. If I have a chief take off, it’s going to generate overtime. We’re at the bare minimum … there’s nothing I can do about that.”
Councilman George Muschal, who is a retired city cop who served 40 years on the force, understands the fire and police departments are “always going to argue.” He said when he joined the department in 1970, both unions broke away from one another.
“I’m pro-cop but I also like the fire department,” Muschal said. “When there’s a fire and the s**t hits the fan, those guys do a hell of a job.”
The South Ward councilman says the issue is money.
“If there’s got to be overtime, the city’s got to learn to bring in money, which it is not bringing in any money right now,” Muschal said. “There’s no revenue coming into this city.”
The city has a waiting to see if it receives a federal SAFER grant from the government to hire more firefighters this year.
Before the fire department’s layoffs, Wolk said there were 252 firefighters.
“Hopefully, they get the grant they put in for and bring us back up to 252, then there won’t be any overtime,” Wolk guaranteed. “It’s not so much a pissing match with the police. I don’t know what they make. It just comes down to a minimum manning.”