The Baltimore County fire official who resigned to take a better-paying job in suburban New York took with him a freshly minted master's degree in business administration paid for with $27,063 in tax dollars.
The case of Patrick T. Kelly has exposed a loophole in the county's benefits rules that angry lawmakers promise to plug.
Unlike many private businesses, Baltimore County does not require its workers to stay for a certain number of years after they receive degrees funded through tuition-reimbursement programs.
"I'm furious about it," said County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat. "It's an abuse of a benefit."
Not so, said Kelly, 47, who more than doubled his salary when he left the county this month to take the new position of commissioner of emergency services in Westchester County, north of New York City. Kelly will earn $135,355 in his new job, compared with the $66,720 he was paid last year.
In an interview yesterday, Kelly said that he would have preferred to use his Loyola College executive MBA in the department where he spent 26 years, but that politics thwarted his advancement.
"I'm sitting there with a master's degree, and I knew it wouldn't get me anywhere," said Kelly, who was awarded his degree in May last year. "I knew politically in our department, it wasn't going to happen."
Under county regulations, Kelly was free to leave without making any repayment.
But those rules could soon change.
Antony J. Sharbaugh, the county human resources director, has drafted a policy to include a payback provision for workers who leave within a few years -- no limit has been agreed upon -- of getting their diplomas.
"I would say that it [the problem] is very minimal, but it has the potential if we don't address it to become a real problem," he said.
County Council members also want to limit the types of degrees that employees can receive with taxpayer help.
After reviewing documents that showed one fire battalion chief being reimbursed $20,785 for a doctorate in health services and another getting $27,513 for MBA and law degrees, commissioners are wondering if those credentials are useful in the Fire Department.
"Some of those figures were on the high side, let's say," said Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. "It definitely has got to be field-related."
Sharbaugh, the human resources chief, said he has noticed more employees seeking advanced degrees with little chance of putting them to use in county government.
"We only have a certain number of lawyers working for the county," he said.
The Fire Department should not be singled out, said John Hohman, a deputy chief who becomes acting chief this spring. The reimbursement policy applies to all county departments, he said.
"A couple of cows got out of the barn, but the barn door is now shut," Hohman said. "I will give the same quote to County Council members if they grill me on this."
This is not the first time lawmakers have expressed concerns about the tuition program.
In 1997, after noticing high payments to several workers, council members asked for a $5,000 limit on yearly tuition payments for supervisors and managers. The limit for lower-level workers is $1,600 a year. The program pays a maximum of 80 percent of tuition.
But because Kelly and several others had already begun expensive graduate programs, they were allowed to receive more money. Kelly received $8,960 for tuition during the 1999-2000 budget year.
In all, 196 of 5,000 eligible county employees received tuition reimbursement in 1998-1999, collecting a total of $155,561. Of those, 28 were Fire Department employees and 94 worked in the Police Department.
Kelly, 47, said he felt his credentials were unappreciated in Baltimore County after two battalion chiefs with weaker educational backgrounds -- Hohman and Mark E. Weir Sr. -- were promoted to deputy chief last fall.
Union members contended that Hohman and Weir were hand-picked by County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, without regard to test scores or ability.
Since then, in an effort to streamline a management structure he called bloated, Ruppersberger offered an early-retirement package to reduce the number of deputy chiefs from five to two, and the number of battalion chiefs from 30 to 15. The two deputy chiefs that Ruppersberger promoted stayed.
Kelly did not take the early-retirement buyout, but he said he knew his options were limited.
He said that in searching for a new job, his MBA gave him an edge. "When they are asking for a bachelor's degree and you have a master's degree, that's a plus," he said.