Unified Government analysis: KCK firefighters trade shifts to get deals other UG employees don’t get

As the Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas, and its fire-safety union remain far apart on negotiations for a new labor contract, UG staffers wonder: Do firefighters in KCK gets deals that other government employees don’t?

It sure seems that way, if one takes a recent UG analysis at face value. The Pitch reported earlier in April on an audit that indicated problems with how KCK firefighters trade shifts. Now the UG Commission is expected to discuss the issue at a special session on Thursday evening (5 p.m., on the fifth floor of City Hall, 701 North Seventh Street, KCK).

UG staff prepared a slideshow that updates and clarifies audit findings presented by UG legislative auditor Tom Wiss back in March. The audit generally found that, while KCK firefighters trade shifts in accordance with the law, some shift-trading practices seem to exploit weaknesses in the current labor contract between the UG and International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 64.

According to the latest UG analysis, the result is firefighters trading nearly 2,000 shifts without reciprocation, and firefighters getting paid for not working. Firefighters also trade shifts, according to the UG, in order to avoid using paid leave, which leads to hefty year-end and retirement payouts for unused time.

Shift-trading is a common practice among fire departments. Firefighters often work 24-hour shifts; trading shifts gives fire personnel and management flexibility in scheduling. The Fair Labor Standards Act and the current labor agreement between the UG and IAFF Local No. 64 permits the practice. In normal circumstances, a traded shift is approved by fire department management, and both employees are paid as though no trade took place. The thinking is that the traded shifts get reciprocated, but it’s not required under law.

But the UG believes, and the audit from earlier this year appears to confirm, that the practice gets gamed by some members of the KCKFD. A written summary of the fire department’s shift trading says that two firefighters worked 143 and 151 shifts, respectively, atop the normal 121 shifts that firefighters work in a year. It adds that another firefighter was paid more than $92,000 in a year but did not work any shifts, owing to shift trading within the department. The UG also suggests that some amount of money — it’s not known how much — was paid under the table instead of reciprocating trades.

The latest report says that 3,154 shifts were traded within the KCKFD in 2015, and that 1,770 shifts were not traded back. The UG’s report says that $1 million was paid out to firefighters who did not work, including $250,000 in paid overtime that wasn’t worked.

The KCKFD’s overtime topped $1.3 million last year, the highest since at least 2006. In 2006, the KCKFD paid out $16,079 in overtime, according to UG records; it paid $72,230 in overtime the following year.

The KCKFD personnel also get end-of-year payouts that other UG employees don’t receive. Most UG employees have a use-it-or-lose-it policy for most accrued leave time that isn’t used by the end of the year. For some reason, KCKFD employees can get a year-end payout if they don’t use that paid leave time. The year-end payouts totaled $191,388 last year and $366,258 in 2014. KCKFD personnel get average retirement payouts that represent 176 percent of their base pay. By comparison, Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department employees get a similar retirement payout of 106 percent of base pay, and Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Department workers get 40 percent.

Put another way, the UG paid out $3.7 million to retire 26 KCKFD employees in 2015, compared to $3.5 million to retire 70 UG employees.

This latest report comes as the UG grapples with spending on public safety. UG Mayor Mark Holland has expressed concern about the UG running out of money to adequately fund public safety if expenditures continue on their current path.

KCKFD chief John Paul Jones and IAFF Local No. 64 president Bob Wing did not respond to messages seeking comment for this story. It’s likely that fire-union workers will pack the council chambers during Thursday night’s special session. Wing previously told The Pitch that he thinks the inquiry into shift trading is politically motivated and meant to influence labor negotiations.

The KCKFD often boasts that it has one of the best response times in the country for similarly sized fire departments. Others in the UG wonder if the KCKFD gets more than its share of resources. Slightly more than 60 percent of the UG’s budget is devoted to public safety, more than six times what’s spent on community services. Since 2006, the KCKFD’s budget has increased 41.4 percent, according to UG records. Spending on the fire department in 2011 surpassed spending on police.

KCK has 426 uniformed firefighters serving a population of roughly 146,000 people. In Olathe, where the fire department is not unionized, 102 fire fighters serve a city of 133,000. That means that UG pays $293.62 per resident for fire safety, while Olathe spends $125.49. There are also questions about whether KCK’s 18 fire stations are appropriately distributed across the city. East of Interstate 635 — which represents areas including downtown KCK, northeast KCK, Rosedale and Armourdale — has eight fire stations.Travel west of Interstate 435 into western Wyandotte County, and you’ll see one fire station serving that area of KCK (that doesn’t include fire stations in Edwardsville and Bonner Springs).

We will update on Friday the discussion from Thursday night’s meeting. 

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