Council pushes back on firefighter overtime

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Outgoing Littleton Fire Rescue Chief John Mullin took a bit of a beating from Littleton City Council during the Sept. 10 budget discussion, particularly in regard to skyrocketing overtime costs.

“I expect a whole lot more out of the fire department to solve this problem,” said Councilor Bruce Beckman.

Mullin is asking for $9.6 million for regular salaries and nearly $1.4 million on top of that for overtime in 2014. The actual 2013 overtime is expected to shake out at $1.3 million. It was $1.2 million in 2012, more than double the 2011 price tag of $555,000.

Mullin said injuries are the major factor, but the big jump came after the 2010 decision to run Medic 16 full time. It was placed into service in 2009 at Station 16 in Highlands Ranch in an effort to reduce response times to Littleton’s Trailmark neighborhood, just north of Chatfield Reservoir on Wadsworth Boulevard. That plan wasn’t terribly successful, and the city began paying West Metro Fire Protection to serve Trailmark this year. That has reduced response times from more than 12 minutes to less than 9 minutes, said Mullin.

“I’m not happy that everybody has to pay $315,000 just because West Metro won’t do automatic aid into Trailmark,” said Councilor Jim Taylor.

Response times did go down in the rest of Littleton’s coverage area after Medic 16’s arrival, so LFR decided to run it full time. It was entirely staffed by six employees on overtime until last year. Finance Director Doug Farmen explained that it was cheaper to pay the overtime than to hire new paramedics.

But, says Mullin, it’s getting harder to get qualified staff to volunteer for extra hours because they are simply getting tired of working so much.

Council approved adding three paramedics in last year’s budget cycle, but they weren’t hired until August. Mullin asked for three more this time around, at a cost of $342,000, to fully staff Medic 16. He said he’ll apply for a federal grant to foot the bill.

Several councilors want to decrease his overtime budget by the cost of the new paramedics. Councilor Phil Cernanec said he wants to get it closer to what they budgeted for in 2013, which was $450,000.

“I just don’t want to make the assumption that hiring will reduce overtime,” said Beckman.

Mayor Debbie Brinkman is concerned about Mullin’s plan to train the three new hires, plus others needed due to retirements or attrition, in-house at a cost of $67,000, rather than paying $7,000 apiece to send them to another agency. Mullin said there are no academies scheduled in the metro area soon enough to get the new paramedics up and running by the first of the year.

“We don’t have a bottomless pit of money,” said Brinkman. “I feel very uncomfortable that it’s not more buttoned up.”

Everyone agreed to Mullin’s proposal to raise ambulance fees by 15 percent, but nobody liked his idea to create an enterprise fund to ensure the service pays for itself.

“The city needs to absorb some part of the overall operations,” said Beckman.

The new fees would be $755 for basic transport, and $855 for advanced life support. The last increases were in 2007 and 2000.

Council grilled Mullin on his requests for new equipment, particularly scuba gear and a vehicle for a newly created position of fire cadet, who will make deliveries among stations.

“We’ve had this discussion before, and I don’t want to have this discussion again,” said Councilor Jerry Valdes. “We don’t just go buy stuff because that’s what we like to do.”

Mullin announced his retirement last month, four months after the firefighters’ association formally declared a lack of confidence in his leadership. His last day will be Dec. 31.

At the end of Mullin’s presentation, Dave Oppenheim, president of the Littleton Fire Protection Board, and Terry Nolan, general manager of the Highlands Ranch Fire Protection District, commented that there’s been a marked improvement in relations among the three fire partners recently.

“We’d like to thank council and Michael Penny for stepping up and becoming partners rather than owners,” said Oppenheim.