Fire chief receives warning on budget

Projections show agency is on track to overspend for second year in a row

December 28, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County officials fear that the Fire Department, already under scrutiny for its overspending last fiscal year, could exceed its budget again this year.

Though the most recent estimate of a $300,000 overrun is an improvement over the $1 million estimate issued earlier this month, it didn't eliminate all worries within county government.

"We're going in the right direction, but I still have some concern," said senior county budget and management analyst Wayne Greksa.

Earlier this month, in an e-mail to Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds, Greksa wrote, "I realize it's fairly early in the fiscal year, but my first cut at estimating expenditures indicates that the Fire Department is on track to overspend approved appropriations by as much as $1.0 million."

Since then, Greksa has received new information and had discussions with fire officials about their $66 million budget.

The Fire Department was the only county department to receive a warning e-mail from the budget office, county Budget Officer John R. Hammond said. "It's just giving a heads-up that we think there's a problem here," he said.

But fire officials said they are comfortable with their current budget situation and caution that it's very early in the fiscal year to be making projections.

Overall, the county appears to be on track to stay within its nearly $900 million operating budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30, Hammond said. That can be attributed largely to higher-than-expected recordation and transfer taxes - those collected from home sales refinancing, he said.

Other local counties recently have found otherwise. Howard County officials have said they face a possible $20 million hole in their budget this year, and Montgomery County is facing a projected $24 million shortfall this year.

Budget crunch

The next fiscal year - which begins July 1 - is not shaping up as well as this year for Anne Arundel. County Executive Janet S. Owens has begun pushing possible tax increases, including a raise in the income tax rate and a new cellular phone tax. She is projecting an $8 million shortfall for next fiscal year.

Partially because of that budget crunch, Owens formed a task force in August to study the rising overtime payments in the Fire Department. Last fiscal year the department spent $7.2 million on overtime, nearly $1 million more than was budgeted and millions more than several neighboring jurisdictions. Twenty-three firefighter supervisors earned more than Owens.

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

Task force members have said that while overtime may be cheaper than hiring up to a certain point, the county has passed that break-even point. They will issue a report to Owens next month, recommending how she can overhaul the department.

Department spending

The Fire Department has exceeded its budget twice in Simonds' four years as chief, including last year, when the agency spent about $800,000 more than it was allotted.

Through the first quarter of this fiscal year, the Fire Department spent $1.84 million on overtime, slightly more than it did for the same period last year. The e-mail from the budget office to the Fire Department takes particular aim at personal service expenditures - which include pay and overtime.

Deputy Chief J. Robert Ray said some of the early figures were inflated by unused vacation time payouts given to firefighters who retired. He said July to December is a common time for firefighters to take vacation, which typically triggers overtime.

Ray also said the department has a plan for moving money within its budget.

"I don't really think it looks that bad," Ray said.

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