The growth in overtime in the city Fire Department was the subject of a sometimes-tense exchange recently between Deputy Mayor Steven M. Casey and Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr.

Overtime in the department was an issue for the prior commissioner, who faced similar exchanges during CitiStat meetings, which Mayor Byron W. Brown's top management team uses to expose the deficiencies in city government based on statistics.

Whitfield attributed the growth in overtime to vacancies in the department and long-term medical leave among some staff members.

The department has spent $8.7 million on overtime in the fiscal year that ends Saturday, putting it 24 percent over budget.

Whitfield reminded Brown and his team that the department's overtime budget was cut 21 percent from the last fiscal year and said that overtime is allowed only when necessary.

"We're going to work very hard every single day to get this overtime under control," Whitfield said, noting that the department has to follow minimum staffing levels.

Casey said that even though the department's overtime budget was cut, the amount of overtime is higher than it was last year. "You're still 6 percent more than the same point last year, so I don't care about you claiming it's 21 percent less than last year," Casey said.

Brown reminded Whitfield that the administration had to "make a change" because overtime was not controlled properly in the Fire Department Former Fire Commissioner Michael Lombardo was replaced because of overtime, the administration said at the time.

"I'm going to say to you and your deputies that controlling overtime is a major priority," Brown said. "Now you are a talented and trained administrator, and I need you and your deputies to figure out how we can get a better handle on this."

When Casey asked Whitfield if he would go to the homes of firefighters who are out sick to ensure their leave is warranted, Whitfield said that wasn't part of the commissioner's job duties and that an investigator does that.

Casey then volunteered for the job and said, "I'm not afraid of these guys."

Thomas Barrett, vice president of the Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association who was reached after the meeting, said overtime would be lower if several vacancies among the higher ranks had been filled.

Brown said Whitfield was not being singled out and that all departments are facing similar scrutiny.

Whitfield also said he wasn't sure why more arsons are occurring. There have been 100 through May, compared to 83 during the same period last year.