LIHU‘E — The mayor’s office has ordered the Kaua‘i Fire Department to suspend most — if not all — overtime and nonessential expenditures after discovering, the administration said, that KFD had been forced to make $1.2 million in unplanned retirement payments due to “spiking” of overtime.
The action, which was confirmed Thursday by county Managing Director Michael A. Dahilig, was disclosed in an email to KFD last week.
A county spokesperson said that KFD’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program had been suspended for the remainder of the current fiscal year.
Some other programs, including training in citizen cardiopulmonary resuscitation, training in controlling severe bleeding, fall prevention and the Sparky trailer fire-prevention program, in which a mobile facility is taken to school and community sites, were shifted to the department’s Prevention Bureau.
However, the county added that the CPR, bleeding-treatment and other programs may be reevaluated and cut if “additional unprecedented budgetary constraints arise.” Fire department sources said a wide variety of in-service training programs for firefighters were also curtailed.
Cuts to the CERT program could have an immediate and direct effect on emergency preparedness on the island, according to these KFD sources. In a typical year, CERT, a program in which volunteers receive training in search and rescue, first aid, disaster damage assessment and other skills, begins a push about this time of year to be ready for the onset of hurricane season in June.
In a hurricane or some other disaster, CERT volunteers can be mobilized to act as force extenders for the fire department. Such an activation occurred after the disastrous floods of April 2018, when all CERT program members islandwide were mobilized.
When the cuts were initially disclosed within the department last week, firefighters were told that training to familiarize new department members with emergency helicopter operations was on the chopping block — a cut that was, according to these sources, later restored.
However, the announcement also applied to off-island supplemental training, including sessions scheduled over the next few months in response to hazardous-material incidents and other subjects.
Dahilig said KFD had not been given specific directions on what to cut, but that “in the process of managing and looking at the fire department’s finances, there was concern about the rate they were burning overtime and overtime spiking issues and that they would go over budget this year.”
Concern over ‘spiking’
Overtime “spiking” is a widely criticized practice in which public employees in many agencies across the country who are nearing retirement maximize their overtime in the final year or two of their service. It occurs because many public-safety pensions are based on employees’ total earnings for the years immediately before they retire, and not just on their base salaries.
“We engaged in a number of discussions with fire department leadership,” Dahilig said. “They can save money so they can pay their bills. That involves everything being on the table. We did not give them a specific list of items to cut.”
“We’ve also given them the option of delaying (overtime expenditures) until July 1,” the start of the county’s next fiscal year, Dahilig continued. “They were asked if they can limit certain types of overtime. (We told them that they) need to work with your budget and we can’t be asking the County Council for more money.”
Unexpected $1.2M hit
Dahilig said the situation came to a head after county officials discovered that eight firefighters who retired within the last few months were responsible for unexpected overtime costs. He said the county was required to supplement its payments to the firefighters’ retirement program by $1.2 million as a result.
County Council Vice Chair Ross Kagawa has been a frequent KFD critic. Complaints from Kagawa and other councilmembers led to the award in December of a contract to a Honolulu auditing firm that is now conducting a review of the fire department, the county Department of Public Works Solid Waste and Roads divisions, and the county’s practices related to procurement of emergency supplies.
The contract, valued at $250,000, according to the county, went to Spire Hawai‘i LLP, a firm that conducts a wide variety of audits for government agencies and private companies. Spire Hawai‘i is scheduled to complete all four Kaua‘i County audits by late 2020.
Announcement of the contract may have represented the first time Kaua‘i County has confirmed publicly that more county agencies are actually now under audit.
However, in May of last year, County Council Chair Arryl Kaneshiro said there was a need for four performance audits to examine processes and practices in the fire department, along with certain aspects of the DPW.
In a memo to the council at the time, Kaneshiro said the fire department audit, in particular, was needed “to determine if the management of KFD is being conducted effectively and efficiently.”
Spire Hawai‘i officials did not return calls seeking more information on government-agency audit work the firm has done.
KFD sources said that overtime for on-island in-service training had also been eliminated. Dahilig said “these trainings can still happen if they schedule it as part of their normal work hours. The firefighters can be brought onto normal 40-hour work weeks. The practice has been to look at training as funded by overtime and not institutionalized.”
North Shore CERT class canceled
Dahilig’s description of training as it applies to the CERT program, however, overlooked the reality that the program involves firefighters training civilian volunteers. The classes are held on weekday evenings at various sites. CERT teams, of which about a half dozen are scattered across the island, meet independently on an ongoing basis, and KFD conducts at least one annual skill-refresher session, which typically takes up one entire Saturday.
An immediate consequence was that a new, six-week CERT class that had been scheduled to begin on Tuesday in Hanalei was abruptly canceled, even though advance enrollment had been at or near capacity, according to KFD sources.
KFD’s bulging budget
In a County Council debate last year, Kagawa complained that the KFD budget had increased from $22.6 million in 2012 to $33.8 million in the fiscal year that ended last July. Kagawa’s crusade against what he sees as unnecessary KFD expenditures has put him at odds with many firefighters. Kagawa did not respond immediately to an email and phone call seeking his comments on the new disclosures from the mayor’s office.
No comments from KFD brass
The email to KFD ordering the overtime review was apparently sent while Chief Robert Westerman is on vacation. Westerman retired as chief in 2019, but was recently brought back to work on a 180-day temporary basis because the Kaua‘i County Fire Commission has been unable to hire a new chief for more than a year.
In recent days, however, Westerman has posted to Facebook several times from his vacation, identifying locations in Thailand where he is staying. He did not respond to a message relayed to him through Facebook.
In Westerman’s absence, Battalion Chief Solomon Kanoho, a longtime KFD member, has been serving as acting chief. Kanoho did not respond to calls from The Garden Island seeking to confirm the exact nature of the cuts ordered within the department.
Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident, furniture maker, retired public relations executive, CERT member and journalist who writes periodically for The Garden Island.