Thirty-five angry volunteer firefighters from 10 companies drove fire equipment around the Arundel Center in Annapolis last night, protesting budget cuts they say are harsher than those levied against othercounty departments.
The volunteers are up in arms over a proposed$150,000 cut in their pension fund that would deny each recipient a $480-a-year increase.
In County Executive Robert R. Neall's proposed 1991-1992 budget, volunteers would be given only 5.2 percent -- $2.2 million -- of the county's $41.5 million fire budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
This year, the volunteer program got $2.4 million of the $41.3 fire budget.
The county budget office had recommended that $635,480 be contributed in the second year of a three-year funding plan for the volunteers pension program, but Neall approved only $485,000.
The program benefits 281 retirees and 65 widows.
"No other group that works for the county, much less the only
group that works regularly for free, has been asked to give up promised benefits," saidvolunteer Tom Nevin, who organized last night's demonstration.
The volunteers insist that Neall's budget proposals amount to a political payback to the county's professional firefighters, whose union supported his election bid last fall.
For the fiscal year ending June30, former County Executive O. James Lighthizer signed a bill givingthe pension program a $25 monthly increase, its first since being started in 1973. The bill also called for a $40 monthly increase this coming year and $40 more in fiscal 1993.
Neall's budget delays thisyear's increase for one year.
Despite the protest and testimony by volunteers at last night's budget hearing, which was still going strong when The Anne Arundel County Sun went to press, County Council Chairwoman Virginia Clagett, D-West River, and other lawmakers were not making any promises.
"I support the volunteers and their efforts," Clagett said.
"But I want to look at the budget. I helped passed the bill before, but now I need to look at it from a budgetary perspective," she added.
Yesterday afternoon, Councilwoman Dianne Evans, R-Severna Park, said she would support the pension cut.
But shortly before the meeting, after receiving numerous letters and phone calls, she softened her position, saying she had not decided how to vote on the bill.
Clagett said she did not expect the pension cut tobe voted on last night.
Volunteers were seen carrying signs reading, "Why Borrow From Widows to Pay Paul?" a reference to Fire Administrator Paul C. Haigley Jr.
"I personally feel like it's a kick in the butt," Austin Isaac, president of the Riviera Beach company, saidof the cuts.
Ed Woods, a volunteer at the Crofton company, said the cuts are a symptom of a bigger problem.
"It's the county executive's dislike for the volunteer firefighters," he said.
Retired volunteer George Nieberding, 80, disagreed strongly with Neall's proposal.
"I don't approve of it," he said.
"I put my time in, and I worked hard. I'd like to see the rest of them get it," he said.
Nieberding volunteered for 28 years at the Woodland Beach company.
He receives $125 a month from the volunteer pension plan.
"It helps," he said in a phone interview from his Cape St. Claire home. "I've had pneumonia, and it just about killed me."