Fire Cut Termed Political

BUDGET WATCH 91 -- Where do all our dollars go?

Irate Volunteers Say Neall Favors Union

May 08, 1991|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,Staff writer

County volunteer firefighters say County Executive Robert R. Neall is slashing their budget to deliver a political payback for their lackof support during his campaign last fall.

In Neall's proposed fiscal 1992 budget, volunteers would be given only 5.2 percent -- $2,184,110 -- of the county's $41,543,580 fire budget for the year that begins July 1. This year, the volunteer program got $2,354,510 of a $41,268,810 fire budget.

But Neall said yesterday that volunteer firefighters have little reason to complain in a tight budget year.

A hearing on the publicsafety budget, which includes fire, police and detention center spending proposals, is scheduled for next Thursday.

Volunteer leaders say the county executive has snubbed them. They say cuts in their pension plan and decisions on how state aid is spent show Neall's favoritism toward the union representing the county's 500 professional firefighters.

Although the volunteers unofficially supported Neall early in his election campaign, relations turned sour when Neall didn't publicly support the volunteer program. The Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters, Local 1563, however, formally backed Neall's candidacy.

Beyond budget concerns, said Tom Tharpe, a volunteer at the Odenton company and former Volunteer Fire Fighters Association president, is a fear among members that Neall may plan to get rid of thevolunteer program altogether.

"He can make it so unrewarding, so difficult and frustrating, that (volunteers) will give it up," Tharpesaid. "He can let a number of policies continue so that in four years, he could put a terrible hurt on the system."

But Neall said he has no intention of disbanding the volunteer program.

"Anyone who thinks I don't have an appreciation for the volunteers does not know me very well," he said. "My mission is to provide first-class public safety, and it is going to be done."

Volunteers contend that even relatively minor cuts go against recent funding trends in which county executives have closely followed budget office recommendations. This year Neall cut money for volunteer training, recruitment programs, awards, uniforms and sending volunteer firefighters to the National Fire Fighters Academy.

The budget office recommended spending $251,900 for the projects, but Neall's proposed budget has $227,300.

A larger bone of contention is a $150,000 cut in the county's contribution to the volunteers' pension fund. The budget office recommended that $635,480 be contributed in the second year of a three-year fundingplan, but Neall wants to spend $485,000 in fiscal 1992.

"He isn'tkilling any of the other county employees' step (annual increases) increases," said John Smith, president of the West Annapolis company. "We felt this was a step increase, and that it should stay in."

Tharpe agreed.

"It's a very serious thing to tamper with the awards (pension) program," he said. "It's very obvious that it is a political payback to the (professional firefighters) and revenge on the volunteers."

But Neall said said firefighters still will receive the benefit.

"It was a benefit that had not been given," he said. "And Ichose to defer it. "It will not change the benefit structure, just the year."

Meanwhile, professional firefighters will get a reduced work week, meaning they will each receive two extra hours a week in overtime at a total cost of $975,000 million for the first year.

"We are not angry that paid people are getting the money," said Barry Meyers, president of the volunteer association that represents about 500 active members. "But just don't cut from our budget."

Early in the executive campaign, support for Neall ran high. But relations became chilly after a series of meetings with volunteer representatives last fall, Tharpe said.

"He was at arm's length," said Tharpe. "Heindicated that he was actively supporting the career people's union and wanted the union support. He assured us there were no special deals in the works."

Volunteers waited in vain for some "public utterance," indicating that Neall would "recognize the value of a volunteer service and continue to promote it," Tharpe said. "It became apparent that he was not interested in the volunteer support."

Neall countered those comments, saying the volunteers' perception of him changed when he received the endorsement of the professional firefighters'union.

"They felt they could not support me if their arch-enemiesendorsed me," he said.

Volunteers say they also were concerned came when when Robert Dvorak, a former fire administrator who they say has never been sympathetic to them, was seen working on Neall's campaign and was perceived to be associated closely with him.

"When we found out that Dvorak was going to be one of his chief administrators, we knew we'd be sunk," Smith said.

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