Firemen's Ball

How you gonna keep 'em down on the job, once they've seen OT?

Two weeks before the recent general election, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Capt. Stan Hills is on his cell phone talking to political consultant Armando Gutierrez. The conversation is about last-minute changes to a radio ad asking voters to abolish the Miami-Dade Fire Board, which had run afoul of International Firefighters Association Local 1403, politically. Hills, first vice president of Local 1403, mentions how ironic it is that his union, which represents 1530 county firefighters, wants to get rid of the fire board since they were instrumental in its creation sixteen years ago. (The union's campaign worked: By something less than a 2-1 margin, voters eliminated the fire board on September 10.)

When he's through, Hills leads me into his cluttered, cramped office on the second floor of the Firefighters' Memorial Building on NW 21st Street and 80th Avenue in Doral. He sits at a desk surrounded by bookcases overflowing with inch-thick binders, dated fire manuals, dusty mountains of paperwork, and photo memorabilia of himself and his union buddies.

He's uncomfortable talking about the subject of my story. For the second time this year, county watchdogs have accused him and other union reps of spending most of their time "on-the-clock" conducting union business rather than saving lives -- and exacerbating overtime costs within the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department while doing so.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's Alfredo Suarez and Lee Stringer say auditors made "erroneous assumptions" about overtime abuse in their department
Courtesy of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue's Alfredo Suarez and Lee Stringer say auditors made "erroneous assumptions" about overtime abuse in their department

Instead of acknowledging the problem, Hills proceeds to make excuses and lash out at the county auditors who discovered that he and his union pals wasted 1.1 million in taxpayer dollars between 1999 and 2001 to run their union hall. The county auditors also claim that 100 unionized firemen have cost taxpayers $9.4 million in unnecessary overtime over the three years in question.

"This [audit] is meant to make us look bad," Hills proclaims smugly, "but it doesn't tell the whole story."

Cathy Jackson, director of Audit and Management, declined comment for this story. She authored the June 5 memo to MDFR director Chief Charles U. Phillips, which details how a select group of officers get the bulk of overtime pay, how union officers spend 50 percent or more of their work schedules conducting union business, and how MDFR brass failed to anticipate the need for more personnel (to work new stations, fill absences, etc.) to offset the soaring OT.Miami-Dade Fire Rescue is a county agency with 2000 employees and an annual budget of $200 million. How the department assigns uniformed personnel to fire stations, the county's emergency operations center, and other duties is governed by a collective bargaining agreement, or CBA for short, negotiated by Local 1403 with the county's Employee Relations Department.

The auditors criticized the agreement for giving too much leverage to the union, allowing for the abuses they then catalogued. The Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General drew the same conclusions earlier this year when its investigation revealed a pattern of "abusive practices" among officers of Local 1403. IG investigators noted that several union officers, including Hills, have not worked their regular shifts as firefighters for months at a time, and that union leave was not being properly recorded as outlined in the CBA.

Jackson wrote that the abuse of union leave privileges, the time allotted to union officers to conduct union business, compounded the overtime abuses because MDFR had to shift personnel to cover for absentees.

David Paulison, the MDFR's director until last year, when he accepted President Bush's offer to become U.S. Fire Administrator, was not surprised that union officers are taking too much time off. In fact Paulison asked for the audit: "The union gets a significant amount of leeway on the amount of time they can take off," he told New Times. "That was one of the things I wanted the auditors to look at." Union officers, including Hills, logged 34,768 regular-shift hours as union leave time at a cost of $1.1 million to the county between 1999 and 2001.

One egregious example: Union representative and chief fire officer Jim Haney worked on union business when he was supposed to be on regular duty 212 times between 1999 and 2001. Capt. William Herrera, another union rep, logged union leave time as regular duty 113 times. Both men referred questions to Hills, the union spokesman, who, according to county auditors, was on union leave 47 percent of the time he was supposed to be on regular duty in 1999 and 2001. In 2000 Hills was on union leave only 45 percent of the time he should have worked regular shifts.

But he claims to work between 60 and 70 hours a week, and had the audacity to say that he and other union reps are "entitled" to take compensatory time off to hang out at union hall. He claimed the auditors and the Inspector General's office failed to recognize the "administrative functions" the union performs on behalf of its members and the fire department. For starters, Hills said, union reps spend countless hours negotiating its CBA (which expires next year) with Employee Relations. Local 1403, he added, also files insurance claims and provides information on health-care benefits for its members; manages a health and wellness center for county firemen; and handles employee grievances. All of this is "work," according to Rescue Captain Hills.

He said he spends most of his union time attending county commission meetings as the union rep, glad-handing pols and handling dozens of "employee grievances." The union's health and wellness center, Hills continued, saves the county more than three million dollars a year because it helps firemen who've been injured get physical therapy in order to return to the field "a lot quicker." Local 1403 used this argument to promote $1.8 million in taxpayer money to offset the costs of running their gym.

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