Grand Rapids Fire Department spent $510,000 more than 2016 overtime budget in its busiest year

Posted at 6:21 PM, Jan 17, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-17 18:21:18-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Last year the Grand Rapids Fire Department had its busiest year on record in 166 years after it responded to 23,170 alarms. However, with extra work comes extra pay: in 2016 GRFD spent $510,041 more than its overtime budget, making it the third consecutive year of overspending its allotted overtime.

You can see part of this issue with these overtime figures:

  • Fiscal year 2014: GRFD budgeted $116,000, then spent $143,108
  • Fiscal year 2015: GRFD budgeted $194,244, then spent $520,115
  • Fiscal year 2016: GRFD budgeted $273,858, then spent $783,899

Yet, six months since his hiring GRFD Fire Chief John Lehman says he believes the department is working collaboratively with the Grand Rapids Professional Firefighters Local 366 union and city commission, in order to take the steps to amend these issues.

Local 366 Union President Joe Dubay tells FOX 17 he agrees saying "the department had been run into the ground with equipment and staffing," and unable to properly staff some calls. Now he is thankful Lehman is making changes, for example putting two A-class pumpers back into service.

“I feel confident that we’re making some positive changes and the nice thing about it is we’re not opening the contract up in order to make these permanent changes," said Chief Lehman to FOX 17 Tuesday. "We’re going to be able to sit down and confer with the union with Local 366, and be able to work through the issues we have with both sides and be able to hopefully end up with a very good product by the time we sit down to negotiate our contract, and that’s not until the beginning of 2019."

Ultimately Lehman says they're understaffed due past budget cuts in response to the economy in addition to many of the department's long-time command staff and firefighters retiring. For instance, 13 new hires will have their first day on the job with GRFD Jan. 23, and Lehman says these firefighters are replacing only those who are retiring.

In order to curb the department's overtime spending, Lehman tells FOX 17 he's made a union-approved schedule change. Currently, one firefighter per shift will work a 12-hour shift as opposed to all working 24-hour shifts. And as he works on his budget proposal now, Lehman says he'll be asking for a "slightly" larger hiring budget.

“I think bodies mean money and so yes, operating at the level we have been and operating over budget for the last couple years has been a result of us trying to staff at a higher level than what we were budgeted for," said Lehman.

"Ultimately, if we’re able to staff to the level that’s appropriate for the protection of the city, then we will respectfully submit that in our budget cycle and hopefully we can get to a point where we’re able to do that.”

The chief's budget proposal should be discussed next in a city commission meeting set for March 3.

Currently, GRFD operates with 172 full-time firefighters and 32 administrative and other staff members, according to Lehman.