MONEY TO BURN | PART 3

A fire alarm: Payroll out of control

 

With a chaotic record-keeping system, the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department can't tell when firefighters are paid twice for the same work.



A BUSY WEEK

Lt. Martin Hagopian of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department reported the following hours from Thursday, March 24, 2005, to Tuesday, March 29, 2005. Hagopian did not respond to a request for comment. Firefighters are permitted to sleep while they are on regular shifts but not needed for emergencies. Firefighters are not permitted to sleep during a fire watch.

MARCH 24


7 a.m.: Begins regular shift at a fire station.

MARCH 25


7 a.m.: Regular shift ends. Hours: 24.

10 a.m.: Begins fire watch at the West Dade Library, 9445 Coral Way.

MARCH 26


9:30 a.m.: One fire-watch shift ends. Hours: 23.5.

He begins another fire-watch shift at the library.

MARCH 27


1:30 a.m.: Fire watch at the library ends. Hours: 16.

7 a.m.: Regular shift begins.

MARCH 28


7 a.m.: Regular shift ends. Hours: 24.

7 a.m.: Fire-watch shift begins at library, ends at 6 p.m. Hours: 11.

7 p.m.: Another fire-watch shift begins at library.

MARCH 29


8 a.m.: Fire watch ends. Hours: 13.

Total hours on the clock: 111.5.

Total hours that elapsed from 7 a.m. March 24 to 8 a.m. March 29: 121.

shiaasen@MiamiHerald.com

Some Miami-Dade County firefighters have been paid to work in two places at once.

Others have logged as many as 99 hours straight, including off-duty "fire watch" shifts where they are required to stay awake and patrol buildings with broken fire alarms.

And the man who coordinates the department's off-duty patrols at fairs, public performances and sports events was paid twice for four Miami Dolphins football games he attended last year - once by the team, and then again by taxpayers, records show.

These are just some of the problems afflicting the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department's off-duty work programs - problems so pervasive that nobody yet has a handle on how much they might be costing the public. Businesses and taxpayers have paid $10.6 million since 2000 to hire firefighters for these extra assignments, records show. But a Miami Herald investigation found that the fire department has failed to monitor the programs or its firefighters' hours.

The department's payroll records are so poorly maintained, and so rarely scrutinized, that firefighters can file paperwork showing that they worked two different jobs at the same time - and nobody notices. It has happened at least 17 times since 2000, The Miami Herald found. Department officials said the cases could be explained by firefighters' exchanging shifts without properly documenting the swaps.

They acknowledge, though, that there is no way to guarantee that the employees weren't overpaid.

"The potential is there. It could happen, " Miami-Dade Fire Chief Herminio Lorenzo said last month.

Also, firefighters have been paid twice for the same job at least 23 times since October 2004, records show. Each time, firefighters worked off duty for private businesses, which paid them. Taxpayers paid them, too, at overtime rates.

Fire officials vowed to recover those extra payments, but insisted that they were innocent mistakes made by firefighters who didn't understand how off-duty payments were supposed to be handled.

"You could throw $600 in your paycheck and not even notice, " said Capt. William Van Meter, who runs the off-duty program.

Van Meter himself was double-paid on four occasions last year.

The Dolphins paid $272 a game for him to work off-duty shifts at the stadium on four Sundays last year: Sept. 25, Nov. 13, Dec. 4 and Dec. 18. Taxpayers also paid Van Meter $408 in overtime for each of those games, records show.

Van Meter said the double payments were the result of an "accounting error." He did not elaborate.

In an earlier interview, though, he pledged that overpayments "will be recovered."

But as of Friday, none of the extra payments had been returned, according to the county's payroll department.

While acknowledging that they overpaid some firefighters, fire officials say it's a small number compared to the volume of payroll records required for nearly 2,400 employees. They insist that these are isolated incidents.

"There might be an individual who has learned to beat the system, " said Scott Mendelsberg, the department's chief financial officer. "But that does not mean there is wholesale fraud in the system."

"In this organization, like any organization, like your organization, there are crooks, " Lorenzo said. If they are found, the chief said, "we will deal with them."

"If we find something that is not working right, we want to fix it, " he said.

MIAMI HERALD FINDINGS

The Miami Herald review of the fire department's payroll and off-duty records found a series of oversight failures:

  • Some firefighters have reported working more than 30 hours on a 24-hour shift without catching the attention of fire officials. The payroll system does not flag firefighters who clock more than 24 hours in a day, officials said.
  • Firefighters can work for days in a row on "fire watch" assignments where they are required to stay awake. Fire officials say the union contract prevents capping firefighters' work hours - despite a long-forgotten department policy intended to do just that.
  • Some firefighters have taken sick days from their regular shifts to work off-duty fire-watch shifts - in most cases to collect overtime or to patrol professional sporting events, records show. Department officials said that is forbidden.

The public cost stemming from the payroll problems is impossible to measure, partly because of the fire department's inability to find or provide many public records.

The Miami Herald requested signed payroll documents in 122 cases since 2000 - a sample of a much larger group of cases - in which computer records indicated that firefighters were paid twice on the same day - once for off-duty work and once for on-duty work.

Such patterns are possible, provided that the hours reported by firefighters don't overlap.

The fire department provided documents showing that firefighters were overpaid in 40 of those cases. In 25 cases, the department's documents showed there was no overpayment. But 57 cases remained unresolved because the department has not found or provided the public records that would settle them.

After The Miami Herald began to raise these questions, Lorenzo asked the county auditor and the Miami-Dade Police Department to open investigations into the off-duty program. County Manager George Burgess has also asked Lorenzo to consider reforms.

On Wednesday, fire department spokesman Al Cruz said the department will not release the remaining records because the matter is now under investigation.

Fire officials admit that their payroll system is antiquated and their bookkeepers overwhelmed. Pay vouchers are piled in boxes in neither alphabetical nor chronological order. Overtime slips are kept similarly.

Records show that the department's leaders have been aware of at least some of these failings for years. Since 2001, both the county auditor and the inspector general have criticized the department's poor oversight of overtime and off-duty work. Little has changed.

Fire officials hope that some of the problems will be remedied by a new computerized scheduling system set to be implemented this month - five years after it was purchased. Lorenzo said the system was designed to be phased in.

The new computer system should prevent firefighters from taking conflicting assignments, officials said.

TYPICAL WORK SHIFT

A typical Miami-Dade firefighter works a 24-hour shift followed by two days off - leaving opportunities to work overtime or do off-duty jobs.

The fire department organizes off-duty jobs through its Special Events Bureau, although private companies typically pay the costs. The exceptions: Fire watches at county buildings are paid for by taxpayers - at firefighters' overtime rates.

But in 23 instances, records show, off-duty pay was at least doubled by county-paid overtime for firefighters, after the same timecards went to both the Special Events Bureau and the firefighters' regular supervisors. As a result, the firefighters were paid twice.

On Nov. 19, for example, firefighter Gerard Wach took home $582 in off-duty pay after spending 141/2 hours on the set of the film Miami Vice. Taxpayers paid him another $582 in overtime, the department acknowledged.

"This individual was overcompensated, " said Maria Reyes, a department manager.

Wach did not respond to a request for comment.

Van Meter, who supervises the off-duty program, said no firefighters ever came forward to report overpayments. But because overtime and off-duty payments often take weeks to be processed, those firefighters may not have realized they were paid twice, he said.

No one at the fire department noticed, either.

While off-duty records are compiled in a computer database, the database is incomplete, missing the names of the thousands of firefighters who worked off-duty shifts. Not that it matters: The database isn't connected to the payroll system, anyway.

"The right hand isn't talking to the left hand, " said Stan Hills, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

That's why nobody noticed when firefighter James Perdomo was paid to work two different jobs at the same time on Feb. 28, 2003.

Log books and fire department payroll records from that day show that Perdomo was on a 24-hour shift at an airport fire station.

But Perdomo was also signed up to work a fire-watch shift at the Homestead Miami Speedway, records show.

The speedway paid $239 for Perdomo's 11 hours.

Perdomo said he remembers the race and is sure that he swapped his regular shift with a co-worker. He said his private calendar shows the word "work" scratched out on that date and the words "Homestead motor sport" written in.

No swap is reflected in the station log, as was the usual practice.

"I've never cheated the county; I've never double-dipped, " Perdomo said. "I'm sure as hell not going to jeopardize a career for one day."

Shift exchanges happen frequently. Many are documented, but others are done informally between friends.

Firefighters in that situation are "paid twice for the same day, but it's not inappropriate, " said Assistant Chief Carlos Castillo. "Another day, he will work and not get paid." Castillo said the undocumented swaps depend on the honor system. If a firefighter doesn't return the favor, others won't work for him.

Available records indicate that firefighters were paid for off-duty assignments while also on regular duty 16 other times in the past five years.

Fire officials declined to answer specific questions about those discrepancies. In a written statement, they said previous Miami Herald stories about the department's fire-watch program were "inaccurate and misleading." The department did not respond when asked for examples of specific errors.

FIRE-WATCH RULE

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue says that only its own firefighters can perform fire watches at buildings with failing fire alarms. This sets Miami-Dade apart from many cities across the country and in South Florida, where private security guards do the work instead, often at a lower cost to property owners.

Although Miami-Dade officials insist their policy is the safest, they currently make no effort to limit the number of hours that firefighters can work on fire watch.

Firefighter Antonio Rivera, for example, was on the clock for 99 straight hours starting Christmas morning, records show.

He first spent 48 hours on fire watches at two North Miami-Dade condominiums before starting a 24-hour shift at a fire station. Then he immediately worked 27 more hours of fire watch at another condo in North Bay Village, records show.

In a little more than four days, Rivera earned $3,077 on top of his regular pay, records show. Rivera did not respond to a request for comment.

In a 2001 report, county Auditor Cathy Jackson said firefighters "posed safety risks" by working long hours on fire watch.

"Although there are no safety regulations restricting the number of consecutive hours that firefighters can work, it is not physically feasible to maintain the required alertness for extended hours, " Jackson wrote.

In response, former Fire Chief Charles Phillips promised to enforce a fire department regulation limiting fire-watch shifts to no more than 12 hours before or after a firefighter's regular 24-hour shift.

"All personnel hired to work firewatch will be formally ordered to maintain a wakeful watch, " Phillips wrote in December 2001. "Anyone found in violation of this order will be subject to disciplinary action."

Two current fire officials told The Miami Herald they didn't know about that hours limit, approved by former Fire Chief David Paulison in 1999.

Regardless, Deputy Fire Chief Al Suarez said last month, the policy is unenforceable: Under the firefighters' union contract, firefighters can't be prevented from working, he said.

"I can't do anything about limiting the number of hours, " he said. "We have to live with that."

Last week, Lorenzo said in a written statement that the department is considering a stricter policy. And Hills, the union president, said fire-watch hours must be curbed.

The fire department "can't tell you not to work, but you can't show up unfit for duty, " Hills said. "We have people who have pushed the limits, and we've got to do something about that."

Miami Herald staff writer Tim Henderson contributed to this report.

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