BY PAUL HAMPEL firstname.lastname@example.org 314-727-6234
Posted: 07/16/2011 12:30 PM
BRENTWOOD • For more than 24 years, Brentwood firefighters got hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime pay for hours they did not work.
Brentwood officials recently learned about the overtime payments — and now they want some of the money back.
In addition, city officials forced the fire department's three highest-ranking officers to retire and two other firefighters to take demotions over the payments.
The issue has sparked dissension among Brentwood's firefighters, who are among the highest paid in St. Louis County. One of those forced to retire, Assistant Chief Bob Kurtz, said he became the target of what he called a vendetta by fellow firefighters after he cooperated with police investigating the overtime.
The issue came to light in late March, when Brentwood police were investigating allegations that City Administrator Chris Seemayer was stealing from the city. Police examined his computer and other records and came upon the overtime pay. Seemayer pleaded guilty on June 29 to embezzling about $30,000 from the city and gambling it away at the Casino Queen.
Estimates on how much the department paid in unjustified overtime ranges from $12,000 to $28,000 a year over more than two decades. The overtime involved routine maintenance on the department's firetrucks and ambulances.
Firefighters who came in on their days off got paid for a full 10-hour shift of overtime at an average of $50 an hour, but they only worked some of the shift.
Brentwood's longtime fire chief, Bob Niemeyer, 70, had been authorizing the maintenance overtime since 1987.
"I think it was a great program and I did nothing wrong whatsoever," he said in an interview.
That was not the opinion at City Hall, or of Kurt Becker, an official with Firefighters Local 2665, which represents Brentwood firefighters.
"At the end of the day, they were compensated for work that they did not do, and that's not OK," Becker said. "Once it came to my attention, there was no doubt in my mind that we needed to work with the city to make it right."
Becker, union attorney Rick Barry and Chris Hesse, who is Brentwood's labor attorney, negotiated a settlement in May.
Of the settlement, Mayor Pat Kelly would only say, "A plan was put in place in which the city would recoup some of the funds."
Becker also declined to disclose terms of the agreement. Hesse could not be reached for comment.
But City Hall sources said that under the settlement, firefighters' annual pay raises would be withheld. Still, because of a 10-year statute of limitations in civil law, the city can only recover part of the money.
In May, Brentwood aldermen voted unanimously in closed session to approve the settlement.
Niemeyer, who was not involved in settlement talks, said firefighters told him afterward that under the agreement they would not be getting pay raises "for at least the next two years."
Brentwood aldermen also demanded accountability from fire department supervisors. Kurtz and Niemeyer said they and Deputy Chief Dave Berkel were forced to accept retirement and that two firefighters, Capt. Brian Hagedorn and Lt./Medical Officer Matt Stoverink, were demoted. Berkel, Hagedorn and Stoverink could not be reached for comment.
"A LITTLE ... INCENTIVE PAY"
Brentwood employs 20 firefighters and paramedics and three supervisors.
Brentwood's salaries are the highest of the 18 municipal fire departments in the county. Salaries last year ranged from $77,476 to $87,954 for rank-and-file firefighters. On top of that, overtime pay for each firefighter ranged from about $1,600 to $6,800.
Niemeyer joined the department in 1962 and became its chief in 1982. One of his sons, David Niemeyer, is a Brentwood firefighter.
Bob Niemeyer's salary last year was $130,000. He will collect about $104,000 in annual pension.
In 1987, the city contracted with Woods Service Co. to help the department maintain its vehicles. Ed Woods, a captain in the Monarch Fire Protection District in Chesterfield, owns the company.
"Woods told us that in order for us to properly maintain these vehicles, he'd have to come in and train us and supervise us every quarter," Niemeyer said.
Niemeyer also said firefighters needed an incentive to come in on their days off.
"The guys said they'd come in, but gosh, they'd need a little of what we call 'incentive pay,'" he said.
Niemeyer said he would require all firefighters to work at least six hours every quarter for the maintenance, but they could go home after that and be paid for four more hours of overtime pay.
Asked if time-and-a-half pay in itself should not have served as enough incentive, Niemeyer said, "I disagree with you on that. You've got to offer the guys something more."
Niemeyer later emailed a statement that said in part: "The Brentwood Fire Department created a benefit where the men could come together as a department — not three separate crews — to maintain and learn about the apparatus. And at the end of the day, when they left, they felt like the city of Brentwood appreciated them."
One of the firefighters, Bob Carver, echoed Niemeyer.
"We completely, 100 percent, felt, assumed, all believed that this entire maintenance program was a known and accepted program of the city," Carver said. "At no time did any of us think this was inappropriate."
Woods said he does maintenance work for departments around the state. He said Brentwood was the only department in the St. Louis area that pays him to perform what he calls his "full preventive maintenance program."
"It's way more than oil and lube jobs," he said. "I answer questions and pull panels off the truck and show the guys different things that they normally wouldn't be exposed to."
When asked how often firefighters need to be refreshed on routine maintenance, Woods said, "When you learn something in a class, how much of it do you remember four months from now? Other questions always come up."
Woods said it takes him and Brentwood firefighters about six hours to complete the maintenance. He charges Brentwood $1,650 per quarter for his services.
He also has service contracts with the Maplewood and Ladue fire departments, which each have two pumpers and one ambulance (one fewer ambulance than Brentwood has). Woods said his contract with those departments only calls for 'standard preventive maintenance."
At each of those departments, Woods said, he and one firefighter can complete maintenance on all three vehicles in five hours.
The Mehlville Fire Protection District reports that it takes two men 90 minutes to do quarterly maintenance on one pumper. Kirkwood said that one of its city mechanics typically does the same job in half a day or less.
Kelly said the investigation disclosed that Brentwood firefighters typically worked about seven of the 10 hours for which they were paid overtime. At that rate, the city paid $12,000 a year to firefighters in undeserved pay, Kelly said.
But Kurtz, the assistant chief, said they worked less than that.
"They'd typically get done with all the vehicles in about three hours and that would be it for the day," he said.
Based on Kurtz's estimate, Brentwood firefighters would have gotten about $28,000 a year in unjustified pay.
Kelly said the overtime pay would not be a burden on Brentwood's finances. The city has a strong retail tax base, which includes the Promenade, Brentwood Pointe, the Meridian and Brentwood Square shopping plazas.
Indeed, the city was able to complete construction of a $4 million firehouse without a tax increase. Firefighters moved into the new station this year. It features an exercise center, multiple large, flat-screen televisions and a recreation room with recliner chairs.
"I JUST TOLD HIM THE TRUTH"
Niemeyer said he is concerned the overtime issue will taint his legacy of service, which includes a medal for rescuing an infant from a burning home in 1966.
"After 49 years, I don't have one thing in my personnel file against me and now I'm being forced out," he said. "Seemayer was my boss and he approved the program. Why should it be a problem now? I did nothing wrong and neither did my men."
Niemeyer's last day is Sept. 17. He said Berkel's retirement date has not been set. Berkel's salary last year was $90,500. On top of that, he was paid over $8,000 in overtime.
The last day for Kurtz, 58, is Monday. He had long hoped to succeed Niemeyer as chief, but that plan unraveled after police interviewed him in April about the overtime payments.
"I just told them the truth — that the guys had been working only a fraction of the time for which they got paid," he said.
Kurtz said he had not been paid any of the overtime, had not supervised it and had never approved it.
"It had always rankled me, and everyone in the department knew that if I was made chief that I would discontinue the practice," he said. "But I never went up against Bob (Niemeyer) over it."
In May, 19 of the department's 20 firefighters signed a petition addressed to Kelly and the aldermen stating that they would have no confidence in Kurtz if he were hired as chief.
In June, Brentwood aldermen voted to hire Ladue Fire Chief Ted Jury to replace Niemeyer.
When word spread that Kurtz had cooperated with police, he said, he encountered an "atmosphere of intimidation" at the firehouse.
"Not one person came to me and actually threatened me, but that feeling was there," he said. "There was a period when I could not work at night. I went home because I was scared of retaliation, scared of the unknown."
Kurtz's salary was $108,000. On retirement, he will immediately begin collecting a pension of $86,400.
He has already found another job. Kelly named him as Brentwood's new building commissioner, with an annual salary of $83,000.
But Kurtz, who had been doing building inspections for the city part time for years, said he's unsure whether he'll keep working for Brentwood.
"The people at City Hall treat me politely," he said. "But just across the street is a very intimidating group of firefighters, and that's not a comfortable environment to work around."