Higher taxes, fees listed to aid Fire Dept.

Task force offers 3 options to address overtime, hiring

Reduction of services rejected

Report on possible action could go to Owens in Jan.

Anne Arundel

December 19, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

The task force studying Anne Arundel County's Fire Department said yesterday that the county likely would need to raise taxes or fees to hire more firefighters for the department, which spent millions on overtime and exceeded its budget last fiscal year.

Three options emerged from the latest meeting by the group: billing patients whom paramedics transport to the hospital, charging higher impact fees on builders who develop homes that cater to senior citizens and imposing a cellular-telephone tax with proceeds that go toward public safety. The task force brushed aside the alternative of cutting services.

"I don't think, even in time of desperation, we should cut public safety back," said task force member Joseph Novotny.

County Executive Janet S. Owens formed the group in the summer, after the fiscal year in which the department ran a $7.2 million overtime tab, exceeding its overtime and overall budgets by more than $800,000 each. Some firefighter supervisors doubled their pay with overtime, and 23 earned more than Owens' salary of $101,999.

An analysis by The Sun found that county leaders consistently have chosen to pay overtime instead of hiring new employees, that the union has secured numerous overtime-creating perks, and that Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds had made few attempts to rein in costs.

County officials have said overtime does not cost more than hiring, but some task force members have said the county has passed the break-even point.

Task force member George F. Bachman compared the continual reliance on overtime to a bubble being expanded.

"That bubble is over this administration right now, and it broke," he said.

Next month, the task force expects to present to Owens a report on how to cut overtime spending, both by hiring more personnel and by implementing more management controls. It also will recommend better use of volunteer firefighters.

Increased controls, many of which will need to be negotiated with the union, would likely save money. But hiring at least 11 paramedics and a yet-to-be determined number of firefighters would cost money. Task force members have said that hiring is necessary because paramedics are run ragged when they are forced to work 48 consecutive hours.

To raise money, Dr. Richard Alcorta of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems told the task force that Anne Arundel could follow the lead of some other Maryland jurisdictions, including Baltimore City, and charge patients who are transported to the hospital.

Medicaid and Medicare will reimburse between $169 and $469, depending on the severity of injuries, Alcorta said. Private insurance typically reimburses as well, fire officials said.

The only requirement would be that the county bill all patients, and some task force members said that troubled them - even if the county didn't strongly pursue payment from uninsured patients.

"I don't want it to be a barrier for someone calling the service," said County Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a task force member.

That's part of the reason the Fire Department examined a similar plan several years ago but never adopted it, fire officials said.

Dillon suggested that the county could use money from a cell-phone tax to pay for Fire Department hiring. Owens has said that she plans to ask the General Assembly for permission to impose a tax on cell-phone use by Anne Arundel residents - similar to a tax imposed in Prince George's County.

The task force briefly revisited earlier discussions about imposing fees on businesses such as assisted-living facilities and nursing homes that heavily use paramedics. It previously has said that it might recommend Owens charge higher impact fees for developments catering to those age 55 and older.

Also yesterday, Simonds told The Sun that Owens' recent decision to make Dec. 26 a county holiday this year will cost his department about $200,000.

Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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