The District government may soon have to issue hundreds of four- and five-digit checks to firefighters totaling almost $47 million because it has exhausted nearly all of its legal options in a 14-year dispute regarding overtime pay, officials said Monday.
The massive payout could remove a major point of contention in a simmering conflict between the department and its rank and file, but it would add to a budget gap of $83 million in the current fiscal year that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s fledgling administration is already contending with. Even bigger spending pressures are possible in the budget year that begins next fall.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he would urge Bowser (D) this week to make up the difference in the current spending plan by tapping an array of one-time funding sources and instituting a hiring freeze and other checks on her agencies to settle the dispute. But Mendelson said he saw no choice but to finally square up with the city’s firefighters.
“The reality is that the city has turned a blind eye toward this problem and lost at every level . . . and there are no options left,” he said. “It’s time to deal with it.”
Nearly half of the shortfall was avoidable, council members were told at a budget briefing Monday.
District revenue from traffic cameras fell off precipitously during the second half of the last budget year because of failures by city workers to keep the systems running. Amid an effort to transfer more maintenance duties from contractors to city crews, some red-light and speed cameras and other traffic-control devices stopped working. In some cases, batteries in the systems went dead, Mendelson said.
Bowser is scheduled to discuss the shortfall Tuesday morning at her first public monthly meeting with the D.C. Council. Mendelson said it was unclear whether she had decided to support the firefighters settlement but would present the issue to the council. Bowser aides declined to comment.
Edward C. Smith, head of the 1,800-member International Association of Firefighters Local 36, said he has had brief discussions with the mayor’s office “to convey our willingness” to settle. But he said firefighters have yet to sit down with either Bowser or new D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine to formally discuss figures. The $47 million tally is an estimate of the city’s liability now under review by District budget officials.
“Obviously, this has been a long outstanding dispute that should have been settled long ago,” Smith said. “It would have an immediate boost to morale for current firefighters and also a recruitment tool to retain new employees that we so desperately need.”
The overtime issue catapulted to the top of the District’s financial agenda in recent weeks after the District’s highest court ruled against the city in a legal dispute that had stretched for years.
The conflict originated during a fiscal crisis in the mid-1990s, when a federally appointed financial control board moved to balance the D.C. budget in part by overturning some provisions of city employees’ collective bargaining agreements.
For firefighters, that included the terms of their overtime pay — for which they had negotiated time-and-a-half wages for any work exceeding 42 hours a week.
At the time, the control board ordered that firefighters could not earn time-and-a-half until they had worked 53 hours a week — the baseline standard laid out in federal labor law.
But when the control-board era ended in 2001, firefighters said that the austere overtime restrictions did too and that their old contracts were again valid.
The fire department disagreed and has never since paid time-and-a-half for hours worked between 42 and 53 hours per week. The city has defended that practice in arbitration, before a District employee labor board and in the courts.
In 2013, then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) also considered asking Congress to retroactively extend the overtime restriction to clear the city of culpability. The pro-labor D.C. Council refused, however, saying it would also undermine the city’s quest for full legislative autonomy.
The D.C. Court of Appeals sided with the firefighters on Dec. 11, finding that the control board order was “one part of a multipronged effort to reduce a gaping deficit . . . not an attempt to alter permanently the way in which the District compensates its firefighters.”
The District has asked for more time to decide whether to seek a review from the full D.C. Court of Appeals. Mendelson said the December ruling has left just a few key questions: How much to pay and when?
Some firefighters want the disbursements spread over multiple years to prevent lump sums that could throw them into higher tax brackets.
Whether that happens or not, Mendelson said that for accounting purposes, the city may have to manage the entire cost this year. He and Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the public safety committee, sent a letter last week to Bowser’s interim fire chief asking the department to begin paying out time-and-a-half now to keep from growing the tab.
If paid this year, the overtime would put the District’s shortfall at about $130 million, or 2 percent of its $6.8 billion budget.
The disruption of traffic-
camera operations contributed heavily to a $38 million reduction in expected city revenue from the cameras, which are the responsibility of the District police force.
Still, a majority of council members on Monday said they want Bowser to tread cautiously in making cuts to cover the budget gap.
In one of his final acts as mayor, Gray sent a letter to the council on New Year’s Eve saying that he had placed a freeze on dozens of programs. That order was mostly symbolic and never took effect, but Bowser ordered about $16 million of the freezes to begin — and all on expenses sought by the council.
She stopped payment on
animal-care grants, Healthy Tots programs, planning grants for school renovations, summer parks programs and the hiring of caseworkers to help get homeless families out of the city’s shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital campus.
Each of the cuts drew rebukes Monday from council members. Mendelson said he was very concerned about the cut to homeless services.
“We are not working with the population carefully enough,” Mendelson said. “to get people out of homelessness.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.