Oswego targets overtime for budget savings
Cities across upstate are targeting employee overtime as they wrestle with budget shortfalls. In Oswego, the city spends more than $1 million a year in overtime expenses. The costs were a key issue candidates pledged to fix during the city's recent mayoral election. Now, Mayor-elect Billy Barlow is trying to make good on that promise, saying he will make addressing overtime a top priority when he assumes office in January.
"We made some really hard decisions, not all popular, but difficult, difficult decisions," said Jeff McCrobie, Oswego's fire chief. He has been cut overtime expenses since he became chief five years ago. Some of the reforms McCrobie made were forced as funding was reduced. Others, like reducing the minimum number of firefighters on a shift from 12 to 10, were proactive.
"I went to 10 because of money and because I didn't want to be at seven," McCrobie said. "I couldn't run with seven."
The bulk of Oswego's $1 million in annual overtime expenses comes from police and fire services. The fire department averages $300,000 a year, which McCrobie said is down significantly since he took over. His department no longer serves surrounding towns, more of the accrued overtime is being paid in time off and fewer firefighters are now allowed to take vacation at the same time so less overtime is paid to cover time off.
"Get a swap, use bank time," McCrobie said. "Do something. Have your birthday the next day."
The changes are working. As of October, the fire department has spent $100,000 less than they did last year. Still, the city has spent $1.2 million this year on overtime for departments like public works and even parks and recreation. The incoming mayor, Billy Barlow, blames the current administration which he said has failed to rein in these expenses.
"We’re looking at a city who has raised taxes almost 50 percent over the course of three, four years," Barlow said. "My job as mayor coming into the first of the year is to go in and identify what we can live with and what we can live without, without affecting services."
But, sitting Mayor Tom Gillen said during a campaign debate that the main issue is not enough staff.
"We’re asking fewer people to do more work as they get older," Gillen said.
Barlow agrees that asking employees in senior positions to work overtime creates another problem. The city pays retirement benefits based on an employee's highest salary during their career, which means what they spend on overtime now will actually cost them in pension benefits as well down the road.
"We have a lot of senior members in all of these departments," Barlow said. "We don’t have a lot of new employees in these departments, so that becomes expensive. When you have more lieutenants in the fire department than you do officers, that’s an issue."
Barlow said he plans to look at retirement rates so he can open some more employment opportunities for younger people. And Fire Chief McCrobie is working on that problem too. Next year, the department will hire a floating firefighter who will serve as the go-to substitute. It is yet another proactive step McCrobie has made as he tries to stave off the possibility of losing more staff and potentially quality of service.