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Firefighters Defend Taking Full Pay For Working Only A Few Months A Year

Thursday, December 8, 2011 at 6:18 PM

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The head of Cleveland’s firefighters union is firing back at an internal audit by the City of Cleveland, that shows significant payroll issues with the city’s fire department. Tom Lally says not only does the audit paint firefighters with a negative brush, but it’s incomplete and doesn’t back up its claims. The case has ignited lots of debate, including on today’s “Sound of Ideas” program. Ideastream's Brian Bull has the story.

The audit shows that some firefighters got paid without working, including one who was compensated as a full-time employee despite living in California for several months at a time.  Another only worked the equivalent of three months between January 2009 and September of 2011, but was paid his full salary. 

The Plain Dealer’s assistant metro editor, Mark Vosburgh says city officials are now working with law enforcement to investigate.

“They now have a police sergeant who’s assisting with a follow-up audit. So they are looking for possible criminal behavior but to say it’s criminal yet is probably premature.  They are also looking at internal disciplinary issues.”

That second audit will also gauge the expense to tax-payers, though overtime costs alone are projected to exceed the City of Cleveland’s budget by $1.5 million.

The findings have set off a firestorm in the city, particularly as many of the alleged abuses came about through collective bargaining agreements with firefighters.  They – and other public service workers – rallied aggressively against the state’s new law restricting collective bargaining, which was repealed in the most recent election. 

Tom Lally of Local 93, agrees that had the audit come out before November 8th, it would’ve put firefighters in a negative light.

“We definitely thank the voters of Ohio for supporting the firefighters through Issue 2, and I am confident that when this audit is complete…or if we are able to have an independent auditor come in…..we are going to request and independent audit from the City of Cleveland… the facts will show that the Cleveland fire department has not engaged in any type of wrongdoing.”

Lally says he’d even welcome the involvement of Ohio State Auditor, Dave Yost, in the process.  Lally says he expects an independent audit to reveal an “archaic” system of time-keeping—which he describes as a pencil-and-paper system – more at fault than a deliberate attempt by firefighters and supervisors to cheat the payroll. 

That prompted Sound of Ideas host Mike McIntrye to ask Lally about the Cleveland firefighter who got paid while living in San Diego for five months, which led to this exchange: 

Lally: “There is no law or rule violation that has taken place. The collective bargaining agreement allows for trades of time. I think that the audit has shown that he has made trades, and he has repaid those trades with individuals at no cost to the city of Cleveland.”

McIntyre: “How has…what do you mean, has repaid those trades?

Lally: “A trade, very generically, is if….I can change a shift so another firefighter would work for me and I would work for him on another day.”

McIntyre: “But according to the audit, the person didn’t work back for him, there was no payback.”

Lally: “No, I believe you’re incorrect in that information, I don’t believe that information is in the audit, where it says there was no payback.”

But Michael Polensek, vice-chair of the Cleveland city council safety committee, says the audit revealed a pre-meditated, systematic process to not come to work.  Polensek was incredulous that the scope of the problem involved so many levels of leadership.

“Who is in charge here?  Who is monitoring the shop?” asks Polensek.  “The fox was guarding the hen house here, and it’s pretty sad that you have a group of individuals that have cast a cloud over the division of fire, which has been pointed to historically as one of the best city services.”

While auditors continue to explore the payroll issue, the Cleveland Mayor’s office has moved to install time clocks at fire houses, that’ll use fingerprints to determine if a firefighter is indeed working. 

Lally says he’d be willing to speak to the mayor again, to work out issues as they relate to the city’s firefighters…but maintains no wrongdoing has occurred.

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Courts/Crime - Fire/Law Enforcement, Government/Politics

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