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Battling overtime in the Buffalo Fire Department

   Buffalo's overtime tab in the Fire Department was five times higher in 2008 than it was just four years earlier.

   The city doled out about $10.6 million in overtime to firefighters last year.

   City Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa says enough is enough.

   She thinks it's time to crunch some numbers and see how many new firefighters Buffalo needs to bring on board in a September class to virtually wipe out overtime.

   The fire union won't have official comment until next week. But firefighter Martin V. Barrett, the union's sergeant-at-arms, said he thinks it's good news the city finally appears ready to staff its firehouses the way they should have been staffed for years.

   In the past, some have argued that the city saves money -- even with sky-high overtime bills. They've said it would cost far more in salaries and benefits to bring the Fire Department's work force to levels that would avert the need for overtime.

   Still, long-term pension costs increase when firefighters receive tens of thousands of dollars in overtime in the years leading up to their retirement. The practice is called "pension spiking," and the head of Buffalo's control board is pushing for state reform. Paul J. Kolkmeyer thinks overtime should be eliminated in the calculation of pensions.

   In the shorter term, city budget officials will be working on a plan to try to wipe out fire overtime costs, or at least keep them to a minimum.

   Should Buffalo significantly beef up its fire force if it can eliminate overtime?

   -- Brian Meyer  

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