- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2014

The senior D.C. fire official who oversees the department’s beleaguered vehicle fleet collected $40,000 in pay raises in a year that saw the agency’s ambulances and firetrucks draw headlines for mechanical breakdowns and deteriorating conditions.

Records obtained by The Washington Times show that the salary of Assistant Chief of Services Larry B. Jackson increased by more than 30 percent, from $131,657 in April 2013 just prior to his appointment as services chief to $174,084 this year — the highest salary allowed by city law for someone in his position.

“To go from [a] $131,657 salary to $174,084 overnight is an inexplicable jump,” said Kevin Byrne, president of the Chief Officers Association, an organization that represents D.C. fire department employees above the rank of captain who are not eligible for union membership.

The increases came amid problems last summer with ambulances breaking down and some even catching fire. The fleet most recently drew headlines this week when 40 percent of its ladder trucks failed inspections and were forced out of service.

Fire officials acknowledged Sunday that varying degrees of rust were found on the base of ladder supports aboard seven of the department’s 17 ladder trucks. The trucks were taken out of service, and officials said neighboring counties were standing by to provide mutual aid in the event of an emergency.

Ed Smith, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association, called the situation “atrocious and completely avoidable” and blamed the administration of former Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe, who resigned in July.

Interim Chief Eugene A. Jones stressed the need for reliable equipment.

“It’s important that the vehicles our employees rely on when they respond to an emergency are safe,” he said.

The problems come after chronic maintenance issues with the city’s ambulances last year forced the fire department to increase a purchase order of 13 medical units to at least 33 because embarrassing mechanical problems decimated the fleet.

Chief Jackson, who holds one of two assistant chief positions that report directly to the fire chief, is responsible for supervising the fleet, along with fire prevention, internal affairs, the training academy and the logistics and facilities divisions. He was promoted under Chief Ellerbe.

Chief Jackson’s pay, along with all fire department employees, is determined through pay “grades,” which correspond to rank. Within each grade is a series of “steps.” As firefighters accrue time in service, they receive salary raises through step increases to the next pay level within their grade.

The size of his salary increase appears to be due, in part, to a questionable arrangement under former Chief Ellerbe by which Chief Jackson was allowed to serve in an acting capacity for far longer than city personnel regulations allow.

Chief Jackson was named an acting assistant chief on June 2, 2013, according to a fire department special order. At the time he was earning $131,657 a year. Had he been named a permanent assistant chief within 120 days of his appointment, as regulations require, his annual salary would have been $149,657 and would have increased to $156,164 when he marked 30 years on the job last October.

But the chief remained an acting assistant until Dec. 1, according to a department special order. That allowed him to reach 30 years on the job while still a deputy. Under D.C. law, a deputy chief who achieves 30 years is automatically elevated to the highest pay grade within his rank. So his pay would have jumped to $156,354. That bump meant that he was eligible to earn an even higher salary when he was finally named assistant chief.

Chief Jackson now earns the amount that corresponds with the highest salary for his rank, bringing roughly $18,000 more annually than he would have collected had the promotion been made in a timely manner.

And the increase has ongoing implications. Because the chief will be entitled to a pension that amounts to 80 percent of his final three years’ salary, he could collect tens of thousands of dollars in city funds from the arrangement upon his retirement.

Chief Jackson did not return a phone call seeking comment, and a response from his work email indicated he was out of the office “until further notice.”

The Times began collecting information about Chief Jackson’s salary earlier this year under a Freedom of Information Act request. Asked during the administration of former Chief Ellerbe about the salary, department spokesman Tim Wilson said the increases were “directly attributed to a step increase, achieving a higher rank and reaching a longevity benchmark simultaneously.”

“He’s paid according to his rank and years of service,” Mr. Wilson said.

Mr. Wilson noted that step increases, and the associated pay raises, are typically given annually or every other year. He did not explain why Chief Jackson’s promotion and longevity would have entitled him to the equivalent of five such increases within one year.

Pressed on the specific dates and amounts of the raises, Mr. Wilson provided responses inconsistent with D.C. law and said simply that Chief Jackson “has a long and distinguished career with the Department and has been compensated within the guidelines of the salary schedule for nonunion fire service members that have attained the rank of assistant fire chief.”

He also did not address why the assistant chief served in an acting capacity for six months when D.C. law caps such temporary appointments at 120 days.

Mr. Byrne maintained that the salary increase, and the way it came about, was highly unusual.

“The District Personnel Manual limits a person acting in grade to 120 days to prevent salary machinations,” he said.

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