The North Las Vegas Fire Department had no choice but to burn through nearly 80 percent of its budgeted overtime for the year in just three months, Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Brame said.
Brame said staffing shortages and a hiring freeze have forced the department to rack up overtime to meet minimum staffing requirements and maintain emergency response times.
"If you close additional units or reduce staffing, that impacts the time it takes us to get to the scene of a working fire," he said Tuesday.
The department's overtime was highlighted during a discussion of overtime use in the city during a Wednesday special City Council meeting.
"They certainly have the highest overtime of all the departments," Councilwoman Anita Wood said. "I'm certainly concerned."
The Fire Department's budget for overtime in 2012, which began July 1 and ends June 30, is $933,360. But by the end of September, it already had spent $739,564 on overtime.
In fiscal 2011, the department spent more than double its budgeted overtime of about $1.5 million, racking up more than $3.3 million in overtime costs.
A city audit completed in April found that firefighters don't abuse overtime or sick leave but that tight staffing levels led to hefty overtime costs.
"We're not allowed to hire anybody, and we have not been allowed to hire anybody for several years now," Brame said.
The cash-strapped city slashed its overall budget, including what is allotted for overtime, as it struggled with plummeting revenues in recent years.
Meanwhile, the department lost staffers to retirements and buyouts, Brame said. And 15 firefighters left for other departments, many of them in search of more job security.
"They are concerned for their stability," he said.
North Las Vegas firefighters repeatedly faced potential layoffs in recent years but avoided them by agreeing to contract concessions.
The department is understaffed by 27 firefighters, Brame said.
Mayor Shari Buck defended the department's use of overtime.
"It's basic math," she said earlier Wednesday. "You can ask someone to cut their overtime, but when we're giving them the task of protecting the city, covering 100 square miles, and doing it with less people, something has to give."
But Wood said the department's use of overtime had been increasing since 2006 "before we started feeling the pinch" and implementing layoffs.
"Every department is suffering from layoffs and is suffering reduced staffing," she said. "They need to be looked at just like every other department."
Councilman Robert Eliason said allowing one department to exceed its overtime budget isn't fair to others.
"It needs to be equitable."
Brame said the city changed the way it staffs the department since 2006, no longer keeping a pool of firefighters to fill vacancies when someone is absent. That change, together with the opening of a new fire station without adding staff, helped fuel the overtime, he said.
The department saved the city money elsewhere by not filling positions and by implementing "brownouts" that periodically keep some department vehicles out of service, Brame said. The department also has cut overall hours spent on overtime, he said.
But "this is a Catch-22" situation, he said. "Either you have to pay the salaries and fill the positions, or you have to recognize that the overtime is the cost of maintaining service."
A third option is to decrease the minimum level of staffing, which could lead to longer response times, he said.
Buck opposed that option. Further staffing cuts would "shut down fire stations and put more responsibility on the county or city of Las Vegas to help," she said. "Response times would be slower, and that's not acceptable."
She suggested the city do a comparison of costs between hiring more firefighters and continuing to pay significant overtime.
"What do we do ... to bring this overtime down?" she said. "Is it shifting of resources? Is it realizing one department is going to need more overtime than another? I'd like to have that follow-up discussion."
Over the past several years, North Las Vegas has trimmed more than $60 million from its general fund and cut or frozen nearly 1,000 positions. The city now employs about 1,300 people, including about 100 firefighters and firefighter-paramedics and 34 fire engineers.
The city had a difficult time balancing its current budget, leading to worries about potential state takeover of the municipality. Officials finally balanced the 2012 budget in August thanks to a combination of cuts, layoffs and union contract concessions.
The overall city budget is in line for the year so far, said Al Noyola, acting finance director.
Firefighters in the city average $162,000 a year in salaries and benefits, according to a committee formed last year to study the city's budget.
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at email@example.com or 702-383-0285.