Higher taxes, fees seen as way to aid Fire Dept. in 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.

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.

Panel member George F. Bachman compared the 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.

Sun staff writer Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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