Arundel facing OT woes again

Fire Department could spend record $9 million by June 30, an auditor's report projects


Two years after a restructuring intended to rein in overtime, the Anne Arundel County Fire Department could spend a record $9 million in overtime and other extra pay this fiscal year, about $5.5 million over the budgeted amount, an auditor's report warns.

The red flag on overspending comes less than three years after the department paid a record $7.2 million in overtime -- some of that spent improperly and some because of inadequate management -- and after then-Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds was forced out of office in 2004 because of the overtime issue.

County Auditor Teresa Sutherland projects about $8 million in overtime for the year that ends June 30 and about $1 million in special pay, or pay differentials, such as working at a job in a different pay scale. Her Feb. 17 memorandum to the County Council was made public yesterday.

Fire Department officials responded that the agency's pay overruns for the fiscal year probably will be lower than what Sutherland projected, but how much less was unclear.

"There will [continue to] be a need for overtime," Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell said yesterday. "But overtime for the amounts we have seen, I don't see those amounts continuing."

Sutherland's warning comes as County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat and a likely candidate for a congressional seat, looks to square away the current fiscal year's budget and prepare her final budget as county executive.

Owens said she was optimistic that "this will work itself out." She called the circumstances behind the current overtime spending and the overtime that led to the shake-up two years ago "apples and oranges."

Anne Arundel County firefighters' overtime in fiscal 2003 of $7.2 million was well over the $800,000 in nearby Baltimore County and the $1.6 million in Howard County. The amount of overtime was so high that eight of the 10 highest-paid Anne Arundel County workers were firefighter supervisors, many of whom doubled their pay.

Robert L. Walker, the chief administrative officer for Owens, told the council in December that the overtime pay would be at least $2.5 million higher than the $2.8 million budgeted.

Walker attributed that estimated overrun to higher unanticipated costs of creating a fourth shift of firefighters.

In making her $9 million overtime and special pay projection, Sutherland noted that her office's analysis does not include "possible mitigating factors that we cannot quantify at this time."

The department has said it expects a decrease in overtime charges for the second half of the fiscal year, along with a $500,000 federal reimbursement for its assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It also might take other steps to close the budget gap, Sutherland's memo said.

Blackwell also said that he expects as more fire recruits complete required emergency medical training and become available to work into the spring, the projected overtime numbers for fiscal 2006 will fall. He said he expects more declines in fiscal 2007 as the department puts the fourth shift into action.

A total of 141 uniformed personnel would make up the fourth shift in the waning days of December, said Division Chief Stuart D. McNicol, a department spokesman. Part of a union contract, it was aimed at easing the work stress by having personnel work one 24-hour shift followed by three days off.

The county set aside $4.4 million in fiscal 2006 to hire 107 recruits, of which 104 would go to fill the fourth shift.

The department will train dozens of new recruits this year, many more than usual.

McNicol said the department had figured that it would draw from a pool of trained professionals in hiring emergency workers. That didn't happen.

"It's a competitive job market," he said.

The result has been costly time-consuming training through the fire academy and community college programs, all of which require overtime and the juggling of schedules.

Emergency workers who wanted advanced training, except for some in part-time programs, are temporarily lost from the firehouses -- and those positions must be backfilled, McNicol said.

County Council Chairman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican, said the Owens administration is making a concerted drive to expand the force and drastically cut overtime.

"This is a short-term logjam that will resolve itself," Reilly said.

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