MERIDEN — The City Council voted unanimously Monday night to authorize a transfer of funds, generated through the collection of City Clerk fees, to cover $416,130 in emergency dispatch overtime costs during fiscal year 2022.
The city had netted a surplus exceeding $1.5 million in its general fund revenue balance by the closing of the last fiscal year. With the transfer the council approved, that surplus is reduced to around $1.1 million.
But the council’s approval did not come without councilors raising questions and concerns related to overtime expenses within both the Emergency Communications Center and Fire Department budgets, particularly during the last fiscal year.
Kevin McNabola, the city’s finance director, told councilors that he had compiled an overtime analysis several months prior, in particular related to Fire Department overtime costs, which are tracked separately from emergency dispatch costs. He noted that for fiscal 2020, the Fire Department had expended $1.3 million in overtime costs. A year later, in fiscal 2021, those costs increased by more than 19%, to $1.5 million.
In 2022, Fire Department overtime costs had jumped to $2.2 million, a 47% increase, McNabola told the council.
McNabola said the factors that had contributed to the fire department’s overtime expenses included the fact that a number of employees within that department had been out on long-term leave. Two such individuals were out on workers’ compensation for more than a year after having suffered significant injuries. Other employees were out on military leave.
Meanwhile, firefighters who had accrued vacation time, but did not take it during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic during 2020 and 2021, took their vacations in the past fiscal year.
McNabola explained that created vacancies that need to be backfilled with overtime.
For fiscal 2023, which began July 1, officials continue to monitor overtime expenses monthly. McNabola said so far the current year is “trending better than last year,” with expenses to date lower by 7%.
“We’re not back to the level where we were two years ago. But we continue to monitor this,” McNabola said, adding that city finance officials will meet with Fire Department leadership to determine what steps can be taken to reduce overtime costs moving forward.
Fire Department leadership, including Chief Kenneth Morgan, did not attend Monday night’s committee meeting. Messages requesting comment were not returned on Tuesday.
During Monday night’s discussion, McNabola said officials would like to avoid a situation where overtime expenses continue to compile, but revenues “tail off – and the next thing you know, you’re struggling to balance the budget for the rest of the year.”
During the council’s discussion, minority party leader Dan Brunet questioned how the jump in overtime costs is mathematically possible.
“How is it possibly feasible, when in the previous two years, we had the same staff shortages. There’s no difference in staff shortages,” Brunet said, referencing, the ongoing staffing issues.
Fellow councilor Michael Carabetta raised the possibility of privatizing the emergency dispatch services as a means to control dispatch-related costs.
Carabetta said the dispatch issue has been ongoing through a few different city administrations, and he didn’t see the city “figuring it out anytime soon.”
“I would like at least to entertain and consider privatizing dispatch. Maybe we could have numbers at the next finance committee meeting. Just to see if it’s an option that can have us fix issues, instead of having it compound here year over year over year. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility to do something like that,” Carabetta said.
Brunet, reached Tuesday, said he had done some research into privatizing emergency communications dispatch. He noted that other communities, including larger cities like Waterbury, have already done it.
“There are options, but probably not the political will to do so,” Brunet said. “There is a successful model out there,” he said, referencing one agency called Northwest Public Safety Communications Center, which is based in Waterbury.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati, during Monday night’s discussion, said if the city had not been in a “generous position on the revenue side, we would be facing a deficit with this overtime. We would have to take [those funds] out of reserves, which would raise red flags with potential bond commissions, funding,” he said.
The mayor described those costs as something that can’t be sustained.
Council Majority Leader Sonya Jelks asked City Manager Timothy Coon if there is any reason why the city couldn’t increase its fire department staffing levels.
“Just to have more staff — so we’re not paying overtime,” Jelks said. “It appears to me we are routinely $1 million over [in overtime expenses]. That is short staffed.”
Coon responded there are a number of factors involved.
He said the Fire Department itself, unlike the Emergency Communications Center, has been and continues to be fully staffed.
“In years past, we’ve always have a calculation, x number of dollars, for overtime. And it’s been fairly consistent, year in, year out. The finance director and the fire chief are working to determine what has changed in the last two years,” Coon said, partly attributing those expenses to the pandemic, to mandated staffing levels, and to the standard contingent of firefighters that respond to emergency calls.