Leadership in the Hattiesburg Fire Department is being questioned after more than a million dollars was spent on overtime in 2016, with the department operating with roughly 20 vacant positions.
The total spent on overtime in the 2016 budget was $1,045,288, which has continued to rise, despite the declining number of personnel in the department.
“That (overtime) is very excessive, and it’s directly driven by the fact that we don’t have enough firemen on the payroll,” Ward 1 City Councilman Kim Bradley said. “If you did away with the half million dollars work of overtime, how many full time positions can you pay for with that?”
The department is allotted for 118-120 sworn positions. That includes Fire Chief Paul Presley, Assistant Chief Eddie Wilson, five battalion chiefs, six district captains and the department has roughly 30 engineers and 52 firefighters.
“It tells me that we don’t have enough firefighters enlisted right now, I think on paper it shows we are missing about 15 firefighters but when you look at the number of people who would actually fight the fire it’s down to about 50 or 60,” Ward 3 City Council President, Carter Carroll said.
Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree said overtime has always been an issue in the department.
“I think we looked all the way from 2000 to now, there will always be overtime, there is no way to cut it," DuPree said.
Bradley said, “We’re having to cover the shifts and people are just working and working and working and obviously it cost, overtime cost more money, there’s no doubt we could save a lot of money if we would just have the positions allotted filled,” Bradley said.
That overtime has generally hovered around a half million dollars a year, but topping the million dollar mark has raised concerns.
Current Fire Chief Paul Presley took over in mid 2013, having the budget responsibilities to himself in 2014.
WDAM 7 News asked, is the department being run correctly?
“I don’t believe so, I don’t believe so,” Carroll said.
WDAM 7 News also asked, do you think our fire coverage in the city of Hattiesburg is adequate right now?
“No, I don’t think that it is, because we are not able to do the extra things we’re just getting by,” Bradley said.
When it comes to staffing numbers, the city’s fire rating could eventually take a hit. Currently the city is rated a 4, however if trucks stop running due to the low numbers, tax payers could end up paying for it.
WDAM 7 News asked, what does this mean for tax payers?
“It means that there insurance is going to go up considerably,” Carroll said. “You have the thought of, do you want your insurance to go up, or do we raise ad valorem tax to help pay for more firefighters?”
With dwindling numbers in the department, firefighter pay has been the focus of recent city council discussions.
Mayor Dupree said the city has been working for years to try to increase pay across the board for city employees, including firefighters.
“Obviously, we listen to the mayor whenever he comes or the director about raises and, quite frankly, up until this year, for the past several years we have not been asked to give the fireman a raise, this year we were and we did give it to them,” Carroll said.
Fire academy graduates salaries will see an increase from $27,600 to $30,000 in 2017 and others in the department are expected to see a $1,500 increase. As of Oct. 12, Fire Chief Paul Presley sent a letter to city council and Mayor DuPree asking for a raise for him, and a $2,400 salary increase for the entire department.
“Pay can have something to do with it, and if means a tax hike, and if that’s what we need to do then let’s put it on the table to discuss it, because we can pay one of two ways, we can pay more in our fire insurance coverage when our rating goes up from a 4 to a 5, or a 4 to a 6, or we can pay a little more tax to generate the revenue that we need to fill the positions,” Bradley said. “I’ve heard from several that it is about pay, the council took action in the new budget where we raised that starting position after they leave the academy and they are on the payroll, the daily schedule, to $30,000, we heard that was going to make a difference, but I think it’s deeper than that.”
Those deeper issues, according to Carroll and Bradley, are centered on leadership in the department, however Mayor DuPree disagreed.
“The leadership in the Hattiesburg fire department is excellent as far as I’m concerned,” DuPree said. “I think he’s done a great job in handling some very aggressive, very talented men who protect us every day.”
Bradley said, “It’s not just in the fire department, I believe it’s in other departments within the city, and that is leadership, I think that there is a lot of people that have gotten disenfranchised with leadership within the fire department for whatever reasons, and they are finding that it’s not only pay why they are leaving, but it’s also the work environment, and who they are working for."
Carroll said, “I want to stress that I just don’t think that it’s all salary. Everyone could use a raise, no one, I don’t know of any employee that doesn’t think that they would like to have more money or that they are making as much as they need to right now.”
Carroll added that working conditions are also an issue in the department, which is not being addressed by the administration.
“There’s a much bigger issue here, obviously it would help if we raised the pay,” he said. “I think if the leadership and the working conditions were better, I think that would go a long way too.”
Carroll said he was just recently made aware of a broken air conditioner from 2015, and a broken shower at one of the stations.
“In 2015, Station Number 6 was without air condition the entire summer, now that’s just not right, why was the chief, the fire chief not in front of city council screaming his head off for these firefighters saying they’ve got to have air conditioning, because I guarantee you if I’d have known about it, they would have had their air condition fixed,” Carroll said. “We understand there (are) some showers in a station that (are) not working and have not been working and the firemen have to go to the academy to shower, that’s not right, those are not good working conditions.”
According to city council members, Chief Presley has not been to address the council regarding any items or issues for the department.
“I look to the working conditions that there in and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get a shower fixed, it doesn’t take ah….you know a budget amendment to get an air condition fixed and if you are having trouble doing, that you should come to the administration,” Carroll said. “They should come to the council and say, we need help, but we don’t hear from the directors, we don’t hear…Paul has never been in front of the council to ask us for anything.”
Bradley said, “People get dissatisfied and they get disenfranchised and they’re going to seek somewhere else where they matter, where their opinion matters."
When it comes to matters of the increasing budget, and overtime nearly doubling on a budget, Carroll said they have been aware of the issue.
“We’ve really known it for a while, but again we are a part-time council,” Carroll said. “We have to depend upon the department heads and the mayor to tell us where there are problems and what they think needs, how they think that needs to be fixed.”
DuPree said the overtime issues are already in the process of being fixed, which includes a recent hire.
“We are looking at ways to reduce the overtime, like we hired a fire inspector so he came in and he’s going to reduce that some, and some of the others won’t be doing some of the work that he’s doing,” DuPree said. “What we try to do is manage it better than we’ve managed it and we’re going to do a better job of it.”
Earlier this year, the fire department graduated nine firefighters from the academy. Still in 2016, the funds have been approved for a new recruit class, but no start date has been set to help increase the numbers.
“You got to have people that want to come work for you first, and we don’t have people beating our door down to get in our academy or to make a lateral hire from another department or even coming out of the training facility in Jackson, they’re just not there because they don’t want to come here,” Bradley said.