Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz wants to get to the bottom of the dramatic increase in overtime at the city's fire service.
Katz told reporters on Wednesday that it's time to stop arguing and solve the problem. He was referring to news stories Tuesday about the tension between acting fire Chief Bill Clark and the firefighters union.
The department is projected to spend $5.6 million on overtime for firefighters this year — an 86 per cent increase over last year.
Clark said firefighters are taking more leave for “long-term illnesses, workers compensation, different types of leaves, bereavement and family days and sick and whatever.”
Clark said the service could cut back by not staffing two units with crews working overtime at two fire stations that receive the lowest number of calls for service: one in St. Boniface and another in south Fort Garry.
That means second units at those stations would not be staffed unless there are people working on regular time who are available.
Union president Alex Forrest lashed out, saying such a move would put citizens' safety at risk, and the reason overtime costs are so high is the department hasn’t hired enough firefighters.
“Our department has been in turmoil from what’s been going on, and we have not hired since January,” said Forrest. "Quite frankly, it's a mess up there right now in the administration. It almost has to be cleaned up completely."
But the union's own data show sick leave has increased drastically since 2007. That year, firefighters booked 42,398 hours of sick time. In 2012, that number was at 61,891 hours of sick time.
From 2011 to 2012 alone, the number grew by 7,499 hours.
Katz said on Wednesday that both sides need to hammer out a solution.
"Daytime drama, which is great for the media, [but] now I think they're going to get down face-to-face and have some discussions. [It's] the only way you resolve these kinds of issues," he said.
Katz said there are a few contradictory "theories" as to the reasons for the overtime issue. One is the cost to backfill positions for firefighters on sick leave or long-term disability.
"The other side of the equation is that there's not enough firefighters to begin with," he said.
Whatever the issue, he has directed the two sides to work something out.
“The acting chief and Mr. Forrest have communicated and are going to sit down and talk and present each other with their evidence,” said Katz.
And whatever the solution might be, public safety will not be impacted, Katz insisted.
Clark echoed that sentiment on Wednesday. He said the two halls that would see cuts have the lowest calls for service in the city, and response times would not be affected.
“There is no plan whatsoever to reduce any safety,” he said.
City officials could not provide a detailed breakdown of the overtime booked by firefighters by Wednesday afternoon.