Panel challenges fire official on leave, overtime policies

Member says practices of department have potential for abuses

Anne Arundel

October 16, 2003|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The eight-person committee studying the Anne Arundel County Fire Department's overtime tab challenged a top fire official yesterday over details of several long-standing department policies, including the way firefighters accrue and use vacation and sick days.

Deputy Chief J. Robert Ray used the Saturday after Independence Day - when 88 of 186 firefighters scheduled to work took the day off - to help explain how leave use affects staffing levels.

Committee members have dubbed the example "the July 5 dilemma."

That day, the department was forced to use more than 50 shifts of overtime - at a cost of about $36,000 - to reach minimum staffing, according to data Ray presented yesterday.

Those expenses contributed to the more than $3.6 million the department has spent on overtime this year.

Ray told the committee that the department is bound by the union contract to grant all leave requests if another union member is willing to fill the shift - even if it means using overtime. He said the policy is rooted in a 1997 regulation written by Fire Department officials, not the union. This appeared to frustrate at least one committee member.

"Why would anybody put that in the regulations?" panel member Joseph Novotny, a former county auditor, asked Ray. "It forces us into a situation where we have to pay overtime."

Novotny said he sees the policy as a potential breeding ground for leave and overtime abuse. "That's a real setup. You call in at the last minute, and your buddy gets overtime," he said. "No wonder your department's like it is."

Earlier, Ray and Mark Atkisson, a committee member and the county's personnel officer, debated the merits of the way the number of vacation and sick days is calculated, based on a three-decade-old formula. Atkisson said the formula could be costing the county millions of dollars in overtime.

Committee Chairman Ronald McGuirk asked Atkisson and Henry Farrell, a fellow committee member and county budget analyst, to further study the issue and report at the committee's next meeting, Nov. 5.

Yesterday, the committee received data showing that the department has paid 4,949 shifts of overtime this year at fire stations. Ray said each overtime shift costs about $720.

Figures were not available for overtime paid to firefighters not assigned to fire stations, such as those in arson investigation and the dispatch center.

In the past fiscal year, which ended June 30, the department spent $7.2 million on overtime, about $1 million more than it had budgeted.

The committee appears to be narrowing its focus. It has divided into two subcommittees to study the volunteer side of the department and the career firefighters' shift schedules. Firefighters in the field work 24 hours, followed by 48 hours off.

It was the committee's fourth meeting in two months, but members have no definite date to report their findings to County Executive Janet S. Owens, who appointed the group in late August.

Sun staff writer Ryan Davis contributed to this article.

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