Howard County has become a more popular destination in recent years for athletic races, festivals and other special events. But that popularity has come with a price.
That price — increased spending on overtime for police officers to direct traffic, manage crowds and provide security — has caught the attention of county officials, prompting discussion on whether police should charge event organizers for their time.
"The overtime is a concern," Howard County Police Chief Bill McMahon told the County Council at a budget work session earlier this month.
The police department has spent nearly $500,000 on overtime between July 1, 2011 and May 1 of this year for officers working special events — roughly 14 percent of the $3.5 million total overtime accrued so far this fiscal year.
Police budgeted $5.7 million to pay for overtime this fiscal year, which ends June 30, according to county budget administrator Ray Wacks, who noted "the last two months (of the fiscal year) are the busy time."
If the full budgeted amount is spent, that would be a 16 percent increase over the previous year.
McMahon said the overtime increases have largely come from the rise in special events, which he said does not seem to be slowing down. Police are requesting nearly $6.4 million in overtime for fiscal 2013, an 11 percent increase.
McMahon told the council that "very, very few" of the event organizers reimburse the police department for overtime costs. "Organizations from outside the county at times will be charged," he said.
But deciding to charge organizers could present "a major policy issue," Wacks told the council.
"On one hand they're a benefit to the community and we, the county, provide that benefit by not charging them," he explained. "If we start to charge them, then the costs of those events become much more expensive and maybe (the events) are not able happen."
Council member Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, said he took a closer look at the overtime issue after the council work session and decided that, "particularly given our financial challenges, we need to definitely re-evaluate our current process."
The rising overtime costs also have caught the attention of County Executive Ken Ulman, who has instructed his chief of staff to convene a work group "to study the issue and offer him recommendations," county spokesman Kevin Enright said in an email May 8.
The group is to include officials from the police department, fire department and Department of Recreation and Parks, he said.
"The over-riding concern in all of this is public safety," Enright said. "Officers working these events are needed and we want to make sure public safety is maintained at all times."
Some organizers, while saying they would continue to sponsor events even if the police required them to pay, said police should continue the service for free.
"If the police needed to and decided to charge, like some other counties, then we'd have no choice," said Paul Goldenberg, member of the board of directors of Howard County Striders, which hosts several running events every year, including the Clyde's 10k.
But Goldenberg noted that nonprofits like the Striders — which conducts training and youth programs, in addition to hosting races — provide community benefits that should be taken into account.
Goldenberg said the Howard County Striders use police officers for its major races because they are on public roads. The Clyde's 10k, he said, used about 28 officers.
"We try to minimize how much they have to be involved because we provide volunteers," Goldenberg said.
At the work session, McMahon noted that it's not just the overtime that's a problem; it's finding enough officers to staff special events. For example, the weekend of May 19 and 20 is full of special events, including Wine in the Woods, the Columbia Triathlon and concerts at Merriweather Post Pavilion.
That weekend was so overbooked, in fact, that Girls on the Run, an after-school program for girls grades 3 through 8, had to move its seasonal 5K race up to May 12.
"No matter what, we need police presence there," Girls on the Run Executive Director Susan Michel said. "Because we're a nonprofit, I would more likely say that they should provide it to help the community. But I also believe police officers should be paid for their time."
A runner, Michel participates in a lot of racing events in the county, which she says provide an economic return.
"I know people booked hotels, go to the mall ... it gets people to Howard County," she said.
Policies elsewhere vary
Practices in surrounding jurisdictions vary.
Baltimore Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the city does charge event organizers, but the rate depends on how much staffing is required.
Prince George's CountyPolice, meanwhile, only charge in some cases.
"The PGPD has charged in the past for larger events ... and we typically handle smaller community events with on-duty resources as available at the Patrol District level," spokeswoman Julie Parker said in an email. "The decision is based upon the event, the impact on traffic, the impact on the community, etc."
Montgomery County Police do not have a cut-and-dried policy either.
"It's really based on the event, the need and our ability to provide services," spokeswoman Rebecca Innocenti said.
For example, she said, Montgomery County has hosted "large-scale, long-term" events such as golf's U.S. Open in which the organizer has provided some funds for officer security. At smaller-scale events, such as the county fair, officers are provided without charge. In other cases, like with the Filmore entertainment center in Silver Spring, off-duty county police officers are hired to staff events.
Baltimore County, however, does not charge for any event, according to police and fire department spokeswoman Elise Armacost.
"The funds for police services at festivals and parades and events and such are a part of our operating budget," she said. "We evaluate requests for those services on a case by case basis. We don't necessarily accept every single request."
Baltimore County tries to plan for officers to staff events, Armacost said, like ones that happen every year, so the department can minimize overtime costs.