Auditor advises hiring fire staff

Adding 84 firefighters needed to offset overtime

`In my opinion, it's worth it'

Study also suggests staff may be abusing sick time

Anne Arundel

February 27, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The county auditor has recommended that Anne Arundel County add dozens of firefighters to its Fire Department, which has been beset by a shrinking staff and skyrocketing overtime in recent years.

In a report this month to Anne Arundel leaders, County Auditor Teresa Sutherland said adding 84 firefighters to the 629-member department would cost $6.7 million. But she said that once the overtime savings are subtracted, the net cost would be about $768,500.

"For less than 1 million bucks to eliminate all of the fatigue and all of the morale problems ... -- in my opinion, it's worth it," Sutherland said yesterday.

The auditor arrived at the number 84 by calculating how many additional firefighters would have been needed to offset the $7.2 million in overtime used last fiscal year.

The report, dated Feb. 17 and obtained by The Sun through a public records request, is the first to give specific financial information about Fire Department overtime since the issue surfaced in August. The auditor also suggested in her report that firefighters may be abusing sick leave -- something that Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds has said is a problem.

The Sun reported last year that the county was spending millions more on firefighter overtime than other Baltimore-area counties and that the fire chief had approved the use of overtime money for an unauthorized warehouse renovation.

A newspaper analysis found that the Fire Department lacked adequate controls on overtime spending, and that bare-bones staffing caused officials routinely to dip into overtime to meet staffing requirements.

A task force created by County Executive Janet S. Owens submitted its findings about overtime last month, but the 21-page report gave no specifics about how much it would cost to add firefighters, which was the group's major finding. The county Budget Office is now analyzing the costs attached to the task force's recommendations.

Sutherland conducted her audit at the request of the County Council.

Owens has not said whether she plans to follow either report's recommendation to hire, but the county is facing a $15 million shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

"Every penny is going to be difficult to come up with," said Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., who was a member of the task force that studied Fire Department overtime. "But being that there are two independent reports recommending hiring ... I certainly think the county can find those resources in the next year or two."

Through a spokesman, Owens declined to comment, saying she is awaiting the Budget Office's analysis of the task force report.

In addition to the hiring recommendation, the auditor's six-page report outlines several other ways the county could reduce its Fire Department overtime bill.

For example, because of a work cycle that has changed over the years, firefighters are only charged 19.6 hours of leave for every 24 hours they take off. Covering the extra 4.4 hours whenever a firefighter takes vacation or sick time costs the county an extra $1.6 million per year, according to the report.

Firefighters work 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off. Their average workweek is 49 hours.

Sutherland recommended in the report that the County Council amend the County Code to charge firefighters leave on an hour-by-hour basis, bringing them in line with the rest of the county's employees. It does not appear that this would need to be negotiated with the fire union, Sutherland wrote in the report.

Keith W. Wright, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters, said the union would "strongly object" to any attempts to cut its members' vacation time.

Another revelation in the auditor's report is that Fire Department employees appear to have a much higher use of sick leave than other county employees.

During the last fiscal year, career firefighters used an average of 11.5 sick days, compared with an average of nine days for other county employees, according to the report.

And 10 firefighters retired last year having used 72 percent of the sick leave they had accrued over the years. By contrast, 10 recent Police Department retirees left having used 34 percent of their accrued sick leave, and 10 recent retirees from other county departments retired having used less than half of their accrued sick leave, according to the report.

Sutherland recommended that the Fire Department and the Office of Personnel identify the reasons for the higher levels of sick leave use and implement monitoring procedures to help reduce it.

The fire chief told task force members in October that some firefighters "consciously take a day of [sick] leave to get the day off" when they are denied vacation time because no one can fill their shifts.

Wright denied that firefighters are abusing sick leave.

"There has been a lot of flapping of gums about this," he said. "We have asked, even begged, for statistics to back it up, and we've gotten nothing."

The report did not specify how much the use of sick leave has affected overtime spending.

Simonds was not available for comment, said department spokesman Division Chief John M. Scholz, but the fire chief has reviewed the auditor's report and believes it "provides an accurate and fair representation of the overtime issues."

Sun staff writer Ryan Davis contributed to this article.

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