In yet another budget hearing, this time for the city’s fire department, the city council found 10 fire prevention specialist were unlisted in the budget.
“I see zero for 2014 and one for 2015,” remarked Alex Mendez, councilman at-large, seeing only one employee listed in a line item that should have provided an accurate accounting of fire inspectors. I know at least four of them, added Anthony Davis, 1st Ward councilman.
Davis said if he knew four fire inspectors how can there be zero for 2014 and just one for 2015. “There are total of 11 people in that department,” said Michael Postorino, fire chief.
Council members asked Russell Forenza, budget officer, to explain the discrepancy. Forenza said the city is reimbursed by the state for 10 of those salaries through life hazard use fees and therefore, the city only pays for the salary of one employee as a result.
“We get 65-percent of that money back,” said added Postorino. William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman, found the manner in which the city accounted for the employees baffling.
“Did you see this budget, chief?” asked Julio Tavarez, 5th Ward councilman. “We have 11 employees but we have listed just 1.”
Postorino appeared to suggest he did not. “I don’t prepare this document,” responded the chief. But he added that the employees should have been reflected on the sheet with credit applied to their salaries.
The 11 people should have been posted and the salaries should be posted and credit should be applied, said asserted McKoy.
Council members continued to find expenses categorized under wrong labels. Shift differential, when firefighters work outside their shift hours, usually during holidays, for additional compensation, explained Postorino, was unexpended for fiscal year 2014.
“I don’t know why the number says zero for 2014. I assure you that number was not zero,” said Postorino. The chief said every member of his department is entitled to shift differential based on a contract clause.
“Unfortunately, the 2014 expended column, we cannot change that,” said Nellie Pou, business administrator, blaming the previous administration. “What we will be responsible for going forward is to do what you are saying.”
Council members have observed throughout the hearings that expenses were listed under wrong items. Shift differential in this case was shoved under overtime for the department. The shift differential item budgeted for fiscal year 2015 in the amount of $334,000 was reduced by $57,000.
“Next year, hopefully, you won’t see these types of situations,” said Pou.
Council members asked what the department is doing to reduce overtime costs. “What is the department doing to mitigate overtime costs?” asked Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman.
“Our overtime is strictly based on emergencies,” said Postorino. He said so long as the department is fully staffed — its table of organization fully filled — the overtime is nearly non-existent.
The chief said last year the department managed to fill its table of organization. “For an extended period of time, mostly during the beginning of last fiscal year, we didn’t have enough personnel,” said Postorino, explaining the department’s overtime expenses.
The council reduced the department’s overtime budget by $18,000.
Seeing the department is budgeting for two bilingual clerks council members raised questions. “What does a bilingual clerk do in the fire department,” asked McKoy. Postorino said the two clerks will work out of the chief’s office. He said the clerks will be able to communicate with residents, who come in to report information, who may not speak English.
“I don’t see why the two positions have to be bilingual,” said Morris. He did not see why two clerks have to be bilingual if they are working out of the same office — one should suffice.
Postorino said sometimes one may be at the training office in which case the other will be at the chief’s office.
“One should be bilingual and the other should be whomever is qualified,” argued Morris. Suspecting the both positions are set-aside for Spanish speakers, the councilman asked: “You have two, and you are requiring both of them to be bilingual, and they speak Bengali is the position satisfied?” asked Morris.
“In this particular case it was Spanish,” said Postorino.
“Then, why don’t we say Spanish? We’re looking for two Spanish speaking clerks,” said Morris.
Postorino said the bilingual title is based on what the civil service has called it.
“When you require both to be bilingual you literally curve out 40-percent of Patersonians who can apply for that job,” said Morris. “It begins to exclude a whole group of people.”
Along with the two bilingual clerks, the department also intends to hire an information officer for the Office of Emergency Management. The officer will have the ability to write grants. “There is a significant amount of opportunities out there for the office,” said Postorino, justifying the future hire.
Postorino said the information officer will also help as the department seeks to find additional grants as millions in SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant dries up.
The department’s fiscal year 2014 budget stood at $31.7 million; its 2015 budget is $32 million. Council members last Thursday reduced roughly $90,000 from an already thinned budget.