Fire Dept. cuts sought with early retirement

Upper management is county's target in attempt to free $825,000

January 25, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Hoping to slash the Fire Department's upper management by half, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger is offering an early retirement package he hopes will free up $825,000 a year for additional emergency medical services.

Administration officials say the department's top ranks have been bloated for years. They want to reduce the number of battalion chiefs from 30 to 15, and cut the number of deputy chiefs from five to two.

To achieve those goals, they are dangling a relatively modest package of incentives: allowing any battalion or deputy chief with at least 20 years of service to retire and collect benefits immediately if they are younger than 55; increasing annual retirement payments by about 3 percent by doubling accrued sick time that can be added to years of service; and offering better health insurance.

For an officer with 25 years' experience and 13 months of accumulated sick leave who earns $75,000 a year, annual retirement income would rise from $47,500 to $49,100 under the package.

"The Fire Department is very top heavy with managers, compared with other departments here," said Michael H. Davis, a top aide to Ruppersberger.

In late 1994, Baltimore County offered an early retirement plan for the Fire Department that trimmed 85 lower-level jobs. The plan had no effect on the number of supervisors.

In its budget message the following year, the County Council said: "The council believes that there is a public perception that the department is overstaffed in the upper ranks; these reductions may heighten that perception."

"I think everybody recognized that we need to do it," said county Fire Chief John F. O'Neill, "but no one wants to do it on their watch."

Administration officials say they believe many senior officers are ready to retire. Through a calendar quirk, if they step down by the April 1 deadline, the 12-month salary used for calculating retirement benefits would be based on 27 paychecks, rather than 26 -- an additional pot-sweetener.

"Sometimes the moon and stars line up correctly," Davis said.

Joe Fannon, a battalion chief, isn't sure if the stars are shining on him. Deciding whether to accept the package is difficult, he said.

"I've been in 21 years, and I'm 43," Fannon said. "This is my career. I picked it."

Fannon is head of the Chief Officers Association and said the group has not had a chance to discuss the proposal, which must be approved by the County Council.

"It's premature," Fannon said. "We're just going to hang and see what happens."

Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat, said he supports the plan "as long as there are no forced retirements."

"The impression I was left with is it is going to be an amicable thing," he said.

Kevin B. O'Connor, president of the Baltimore County Professional Firefighters Association, said the union will "have no comment until we speak with the county executive's office."

If the county eliminates 15 battalion chief positions -- four of which are vacant because of retirements -- and three deputy chief jobs, it would save enough money to add three or four emergency medical units. The county has 25 such units, each of which is staffed by two people.

O'Neill said the units would be used to beef up daytime staffing.

And if not enough people retire? Davis wouldn't rule out the possibility that the jobs could be eliminated in the county budget Ruppersberger submits in April.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Davis said. "These are nonbargaining unit positions. We could eliminate them from the budget anyway."

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