By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
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.
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.
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.
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.
Instead the department assigned then-captain Fernando Fernandez, who earned $115,264 in overtime between 1999 and 2001, to oversee the renovation. Fernandez, who is now the department's logistics division chief, was paid that handsome OT while overseeing the project.
The expenditure was justified, Suarez said, because Fernandez is a general contractor, which allowed the department to pull the building permits necessary to renovate the HQ.
David Paulison hand-picked Fernandez to oversee the project. "I wanted someone who I trusted and who would look out for the best interests of the department," Paulison explained. "Even if [Fernandez] cost us money, we got what we wanted; the project was done on time and on budget."
Yet despite their defensive rhetoric, the MDFR brass is initiating several reforms to address the auditors' conclusions.
Stringer said the department has implemented a fast-track training program to get state-certified firefighters applying to the county out in the field more quickly; this will cut down on OT. In early August, Stringer said, the department deployed sixteen new firefighters who graduated from the accelerated program.
He added that the department has received approval from the county's budget office to fill vacancies before they occur. "In the past, we could only hire when the vacancy actually occurred," he said. "Now we are bringing people in early once we identify an anticipated vacancy." This will also cut OT.
And, "The request must have my signature to be approved," Stringer said.