The Baltimore County Council will dip into the county's bulging budget surplus tonight to pay more than $1 million in unexpected overtime for police and firefighters.
County firefighters have collected $158,653 in overtime since last summer for an unusual reason: They stopped being so nice to each other. Police earned theirs in a more traditional way, on criminal cases.
Under an unwritten agreement that persisted for years, firefighters working the day shift would arrive about 7 a.m., an hour before they were technically to go on the clock at 8 a.m. The courtesy allowed night-shift workers to leave earlier. The favor was returned in the afternoon, when the night shift would arrive at 5 p.m., an hour before its 6 p.m. start time.
The early arrival times meant that service calls received between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. or 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. were handled by arriving workers as if they were on duty, avoiding overtime costs for those at the end of their shifts.
"All these years, we've probably been having this savings," said Mark Hubbard, a department spokesman.
But that ended in July. In a contract change pushed by the fire union, the start times of shifts formally were changed to 7 a.m. for days and 5 p.m. for nights.
"The reason we wanted that change was so that people weren't fighting that rush-hour traffic," said Kevin B. O'Connor, the county fire union president.
Because firefighters no longer arrived for work an hour early, that meant higher overtime costs because of calls near shift changes.
"We were looking at this change strictly as a matter of convenience for our membership," O'Connor said. "However, if it creates an increased overtime burden for the county, so be it."
Police officers logged $500,000 worth of overtime during a search and hostage standoff involving Joseph C. Palczynski, the unemployed electrician who killed four people and held three members of his girlfriend's family hostage before being shot to death by police in Dundalk last month.
They earned $407,500 investigating 18 homicides that occurred during the final three months of last year and the fatal shooting of an off-duty police officer Feb. 7. Homicide detectives work around the clock during the first 24 hours after a killing, said police spokesman Bill Toohey, before the investigative trail grows cold.
Homicide cases "are very, very intense on overtime," he said. "They [police] get on something and follow it through without going home."
In all, the Police Department needs $1.27 million from the county's reserves to pay for additional school resource officers and business-district patrols, in addition to overtime.
The Fire Department is requesting an extra $815,080 in the budget ending this month, a figure that includes lump-sum payments of accrued sick and vacation time for fire chiefs accepting an early retirement package. The payments ranged as high as $37,000, Hubbard said.
After the transfer, which council members are expected to approve at their meeting tonight, the county would have a $59.2 million surplus in an unreserved account for this fiscal year.