Firemen's Ball

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

MDFR Lt. Faye Davis, a member of the Progressive Firefighters Association, a grassroots organization representing the interests of minority firemen, scoffed at Hills's assertions.

"The union needed the money for their wellness center because they were losing money on it," she said. "The county basically took them off the hook."

The union, Davis said, gets whatever it wants from the county. Meanwhile, she explained, her group is at odds with MDFR brass over their decision to discontinue firefighter training classes at Miami-Dade Community College's north campus, which is more accessible to black applicants who live in the Northwest. Davis has tried, to no avail, to convince the powers-that-be to conduct training at all venues.

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

On October 9, Davis made a final plea to the county commission, although she believes her efforts are falling on deaf ears. "If the union had made the statements I made, those commissioners would have been falling all over themselves to give them what they want," Davis asserted.

Hills declined to respond to Davis's comments. Instead he focused on a vague conspiracy against Local 1403, which has been a political force in Miami-Dade County for decades.

Merrett Stierheim, former county manager and current public schools superintendent, could not help but laugh as he recalled his first dustup with Local 1403. "It happened in 1976, during my first budget as county manager," Stierheim said with a hearty chuckle. "I was trying to cut down the number of firefighters on emergency vehicles. They brought in 3000 to 4000 senior citizens with bullhorns. [Former county mayor] Steve Clark said the first order of business is to take care of this fire issue. I never had a chance to say anything."

Stierheim's battles with the fire union are so legendary, the former county manager roasted two-time fire union president Dominick Barbera at his retirement from MDFR in 1993.

He last tangled with the union over salary increases in December 2000. Stierheim, along with Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, warned the county commission not to give twelve-percent salary hikes across the board. The commission overrode two Penelas vetoes of the hike, ample proof of the union's political clout.

Earlier this year, Hills and Barbera, again the union president, attacked Miami-Dade Inspector General Christopher Mazzella, accusing his office of a political witch hunt and "McCarthyism." The union bosses said the investigation was fueled by Penelas as retaliation for going toe-to-toe with the mayor. Penelas denied it.

At his office, Hills speculated that the recent audit is politically motivated as well. But he would not speculate on who was behind this new conspiracy. Hills said he found it odd that the inspector general and the auditors only reviewed overtime and leave pay since 1999, the year Barbera began his second stint as president.

"We had more overtime and leave pay before Dominick came back," Hills said. "In fact, [Barbera] is retired. He gets no leave pay. And he's told certain union officers that they can't work full-time for the union."

He then sighed and remarked sarcastically: "This is the thanks we get for coming to work."

Meanwhile MDFR deputy director Lee Stringer, assistant chief Alfredo Suarez, budget manager Larry Rangel, and department spokesman Louis Fernandez put on a full-court press to debunk the audit."The auditors have a job to do," Stringer said. "But when they come in [here they] sometimes don't get with staff because they don't want their report to become 'tainted.' They did their report without speaking to us in detail, and some of the things they found were [inaccurate]."

For instance, the audit criticizes MDFR for not anticipating personnel shortages and not properly tracking the number of firefighters who would take time off for training or holiday leave. Between 1999 and 2001, sick leave increased by thirty percent, while annual and earned holiday leave increased by nineteen and thirteen percent, respectively.

However, Rangel and Suarez explained, the audit fails to recognize the number of fire department personnel who are paid for unused leave time. "There is no differentiation made between people who actually use leave time and people who are paid for accrued leave time when they retire," Suarez said. "Even if they haven't used sick leave, it appears in the audit like it was used."

Suarez disputed the auditors' conclusion that overtime in the fire prevention division grew from $412,420 to $636,323 between 1999 and 2001. "The increase in overtime was minimal," he claimed, showing me a copy of a budget report that indicates that OT has actually decreased from $596,048 last fiscal year to $472,146 in 2002. The assistant chief also defended the fire department's decision to pay overtime to fifteen fire inspectors who earned a combined $274,095 during the three-year period in question.

The fire inspectors were paid for conducting special request inspections, or SRIs (inspections done at the request of building contractors). The SRIs, auditors found, are typically scheduled at the end of a regular four-day, 40-hour work week, precipitating the need for overtime. A chief beneficiary of the SRI OT was Lt. Tony Tola, who earned $126,906 in additional compensation over several years. In another instance, auditors concluded that the department could have curtailed overtime had it used nonuniformed personnel to oversee the renovation of the Fire Rescue headquarters in Doral in 1999.

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