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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Did Fire Mascot "Sparky" Receive Overtime Pay from City Taxpayers?

The City Apparently Does Not Know the Answer

A few weeks ago in response to the initial wave of reports on city finances, the Vanguard received a tip that as part of the Davis Fire Department Public Education Program, the fire fighter who dressed as "Sparky" received overtime pay.

A phone conversation at that time with Davis City Manager Bill Emlen confirmed that this was indeed a distinct possibility. Thus the Vanguard fired off a public records request to find out in exact terms, what the fire mascot received in terms of overtime pay. Even by the standards of this city, the Vanguard is shocked and stunned by what it found.

The Public Education program, according to the city:
"is contained within the Fire Prevention Division of the Davis Fire Department budget. The Fire Prevention Division includes fire safety inspections, fire investigations, plan review, public education, weed abatement, youth fire diversion, water supply and permits. The scope of the Public Education program emphasizes citizen education regarding fire safety, to reduce the chance of fires in places of assembly, residences and in the business community."
Some of the activities include:
• Annual Fire Department open house in October
• Fire safety presentations
• Disaster preparedness presentations
• Pre-school presentations
• Third grade class presentations
• Career days at local junior and senior high schools
• Fire extinguisher operation presentations and drills
• Station tours
• Fraternity and Sorority fire safety talks
• Neighborhood Night Out
• Special events (approximately 20 annually)
However, when asked for budget items related to the funding of the Public Education Program, the Vanguard was stunned to find out that the city does not separately account for the program. Rather it contains the Public Education Program within the budget for the Fire Prevention Division, a grouping that also contains fire investigations, weed abatement, and the youth fire diversion.

Last year, the city spent $371,238 on such programs, a not so modest budget including $229,505 in salaries and another $19,491 in overtime.

When asked for the city to itemize "expenditures to the firefighter for work performed as the mascot 'Sparky,'" again the city had no answer.
"The Fire Department does not have any records responsive to your request because expenditures to a Firefighter for work performed as the Mascot “Sparky” are not recorded as working as “Sparky,” but as a public education event."
However, the city was able to tell the Vanguard:
"The mascot “Sparky” is typically used approximately 3-5 times a year. The events are: Farmers market twice a year (February and October) four hours each; Open House in October four hours; and possibly one or two additional City events for two to four hours."
This led to the conclusion that "Sparky" probably involved in about 20 hours of work.

The Vanguard asked if these payments constitute overtime pay. The response was illusive at best.
"Again, the Fire Department does not have any records responsive to your request because such time is recorded as public education time. That said, the Fire Department tries to limit overtime pay when feasible for public education events. Firefighters on overtime are only used when no one else is available."
When asked over the phone, Bill Emlen seemed fairly sure that the firefighter who dressed up as "Sparky" was given overtime pay. And even if "Sparky" was not directly given overtime pay, it seems likely that a firefighter who worked these extra shifts would eventually be given overtime pay because of the additional hours.

The Vanguard can approximate the amount of money the city might be paying the firefighter to dress up as "Sparky" in public events.

We know the average firefighter received $88,555.01 in base salary. Averaging that over a 40 hour work week gives us an approximate total of $42.57 per hour. That means that overtime pay at a time and a half would be roughly $63.86 per hour for a total over 20 hours of $1277.24 of cost to the Davis taxpayers. That is not over $1200 of money going to help fight fires, it is money going to a man dressed up in a dog suit.

You might ask why a fire department volunteer could not perform that task for no cost? Are you telling me that they could not get an individual to volunteer for a few hours at a time to dress up as "Sparky"? It seems inconceivable to me that there is a possibility that the city paid a firefighter overtime wages to dress up as "Sparky"--whether those are direct overtime wages or those hours would eventually push their regular duty into overtime is appalling to me.

But frankly I am not sure what is more appalling--the use of taxpayer money or the fact that the city cannot directly account for that use of taxpayer money?

This public records request was not a very complicated request. The city was not able to itemize those expenditures. They have no idea how much the fire department is spending on public education as opposed to some of the other fire prevention programs. They have no idea how much overtime they are paying for these support programs. That is appalling and it is completely irresponsible.

The people who run this city have very little idea how the taxpayers money is being spent and amazingly they have admitted as much in their response to the Vanguard's public records request.

The only reasonable explanation I can think of is that the city does not want to know specifically how this money is being spent because then they have plausible deniability. They cannot be held accountable for what they do not know--and they know money is being misspent.

Any responsible agency should be embarrassed that they cannot breakdown exactly how taxpayer money is being spent by departments under their control. This definitely makes one wonder how many other times this is the case as well, in how many other city departments.

I implore the city council to hold the city manager's office and the city finance department responsible for the amount of money that the city spends on various programs so that the city council and the public can no exactly where the city's tax money goes and whether or not it is being spent wisely.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting