Task force's indecision gives OK to overtime

Group fails to recommend hiring more firefighters

January 11, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz and Ryan Davis | Julie Bykowicz and Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Four months after County Executive Janet S. Owens asked a task force to determine whether she should hire more firefighters to reduce overtime, the group returned last week with two answers: yes and maybe.

The eight-person group unanimously approved dozens of recommendations on everything from shift schedules to volunteer firefighters but remained divided on the central issue it had been charged with researching.

Because the task force did not take a stand on hiring, some believe it has given county administrators the green light to continue using overtime to fill its firehouses - a practice that has led Anne Arundel to spend millions more than other Baltimore-area counties on firefighter overtime.

"By not being clear, they are lending their support to the status quo as opposed to change," said county fire union president Keith W. Wright, who attended most of the group's dozen meetings.

Through a spokesman, Owens said yesterday that she would "certainly consider hiring additional firefighters, pending available funds." She has not yet seen the task force's report.

Owens formed the committee in August, after The Sun reported that the department's $7.2 million overtime expenses were $800,000 over budget last fiscal year and that Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds used $135,000 in overtime money to pay for an unauthorized warehouse renovation.

The county executive requested that the task force research all aspects of management and operation at the Fire Department, paying particular attention to overtime.

But even at the final meeting Thursday, task force members could not agree whether the cash-strapped county should beef up its Fire Department, instead passing two separate recommendations.

One asks county leaders to "fully staff the Fire Department" and to "strive to eliminate overtime" caused by predictable absences such as vacation days.

To fulfill this suggestion, the county would need to hire dozens of firefighters and paramedics to bring it up to its authorized strength of about 630.

The second recommendation, approved just moments after the first, asks that county leaders "continuously evaluate" the use of overtime, as opposed to hiring by "comparing cost savings against the benefit of morale, public safety and private safety issues."

To satisfy this suggestion, the county could continue paying overtime, instead of filling vacancies.

One calculation used by the task force estimates that adding a new firefighter costs $80,000 the first year, once equipment, training and benefits are factored in. That figure compares with paying about $60,000 in overtime each year to cover the same number of shifts of a full-time employee.

By passing both recommendations, the task force "watered down" its stance on the importance of hiring, said task force member Joseph A. Novotny.

But Dr. Richard Alcorta of the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems - the only task force member trained in emergency services - said he thinks both recommendations can work.

"We need to get to full staffing ... but we're not going to do it overnight," he said during a break at Thursday's meeting. "This [second] recommendation serves as a transition."

Alcorta and four others voted in favor of both suggestions on hiring. Chairman Ronald McGuirk did not vote.

Novotny said he wants to leave no doubt in the county executive's mind that she should hire additional firefighters.

"We should be trying to get to a point where this county does not use overtime instead of hiring full-time personnel," Novotny, a former county auditor, said during the meeting.

Three others joined Novotny in asking the county to commit to adding more firefighters. McGuirk, a top aide to Owens, did not vote, but he said he supported hiring. Although Skip Bullen, a senior adviser to Owens, voted in favor of hiring, he at first seemed reluctant to make a suggestion that would leave county leaders open to criticism if they don't implement it.

"We can't just leave a statement out there that would allow everyone to be criticized," he said.

Each of the three task force members who opposed a commitment to add firefighters has a position with the county.

County Personnel Director Mark Atkisson said during the meeting that he couldn't approve a suggestion that would "tie the hands" of the county. He said he believes it is cheaper to pay overtime than to hire additional firefighters.

Henry Farrell, a county budget analyst, also opposed making a formal hiring suggestion.

Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a county councilman, also voted against that recommendation, later saying he felt that it went too far.

"There's a right spot, and it's somewhere between where we are now and 100 percent full staffing," he said. Dillon said some overtime is good because it is usually more cost-effective than hiring.

By asking the county to compare the cost-savings of overtime against the benefits of hiring, the task force is underlining the fact that paying excessive overtime has drawbacks that cannot easily be calculated, Dillon said.

For example, he said, the county has too much overtime now because paramedics are sometimes forced to work 48 consecutive hours.

"I think what it is saying is we need to hire additional people now, period," he said. The level of hiring "is what needs to be determined."

Owens and Simonds will assess the task force report and determine which of the suggestions to follow.

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