MORAGA -- For the first time in two years, the Moraga-Orinda Fire District will hire new firefighter-paramedics following board approval of a request to fill the open positions.
Directors Fred Weil, John Wyro, Alex Evans, Stephen Anderson and new board president Frank Sperling voted Wednesday to fill six of 12 firefighter vacancies, including two open captain positions and any holes created from promoting engineers to captains. The nonadministrative hires would be the district's first since labor negotiations began more than two years ago.
Fire Chief Randy Bradley told trustees the district had been waiting to make the hires after establishing a second-tier retirement system as part of contract negotiations. But with three firefighters on long-term disability due to injuries suffered in an accident last month, coupled with a handful of expected retirements in March, the district could potentially have been down 18 firefighters.
"The reason we have to hire is I don't have enough folks to staff fire engines, and it's going to get worse in the next couple of months," Bradley said. "Right now we're working an exorbitant amount of overtime, still cheaper than hiring full-time people because of the cost of benefits, but we need to hire. That is the bottom line."
According to a recent budget report, the district was projected to have paid more than $1.5 million in overtime for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012. Currently, open positions are "filled" with overtime work.
Bradley explained that normally, the district would hire experienced firefighter/paramedics to limit the amount of training needed. But because hiring experienced personnel is more expensive due to retirement costs, the district will hire firefighter/paramedics with less professional experience and send them to an academy for more training.
The new hires would be placed in a retirement tier established by recent legislation that took effect Jan. 1 and will be able to collect a pension of 2.7 percent based on an average of three years of salary at age 57.
They are also anticipated to earn a fully benefited hourly rate of about $45, which is lower than an average overtime hourly rate of $50.88, according to a staff report. Bradley acknowledged the savings would diminish over time as firefighters' pay increases.
There would also be a expenses associated with training the new hires and sending them to a fire academy, but the district would recoup those costs over the lifetime of their careers at the lower retirement rate, the chief explained.
While Sperling said he favored the move, he asked about any substantial impacts on a recently unveiled draft plan to reduce pension debt.
Bradley said the new hires -- three of which were budgeted for this fiscal year -- would have some effect on the plan, and that's why he was asking to fill half of the twelve open positions.
"There will be some impact but we can't continue going the way we're going, especially if I lose three more people in March," Bradley said. "I've got to have three more ready to go."