Eight of the 10 highest-paid Anne Arundel County government workers last fiscal year were firefighter supervisors, many of whom nearly doubled their pay as the Fire Department spent millions more on overtime than did neighboring agencies.
Since Chief Roger C. Simonds took over the department in April 1999, its overtime costs have nearly doubled. Last year the 631-firefighter department spent $7.2 million on overtime, exceeding its overtime budget by nearly $1 million.
Baltimore County, which has 1,010 firefighters, spent $837,150 for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Howard County, which has 287 firefighters, spent $1.6 million. Carroll and Harford counties rely on volunteers for fire service.
No firefighters cracked the Top 10 in any other Baltimore-area county over a similar period of time. But thanks to overtime, 23 Anne Arundel firefighter supervisors made more than County Executive Janet S. Owens in fiscal 2003.
"The numbers are just amazing," said Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican. "We should look at what Baltimore County's doing. Why such a huge difference?"
Even fire union officials, who benefit from overtime, say the money has been misspent, citing a recent project commissioned by Simonds. After the county denied him funding to renovate an old warehouse, he paid a crew of firefighters and a fire captain overtime - at time and a half - to do the job. The captain made $42 an hour doing tasks such as hanging drywall.
"This is probably the most blatant example of overtime misuse the union has seen," said Lt. Buddy Dietz, vice president of the county's fire union.
Anne Arundel fire officials expressed little concern about overtime, describing it as a fact of life for their department. They blamed the tally on heightened homeland security concerns and bad weather.
Simonds also pointed out that other departments, especially Baltimore County's, avoid excessive overtime because they have better staffing levels.
One Anne Arundel County Council member is sympathetic. "We don't give them the people, and then we criticize them for overtime," said County Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Linthicum Democrat.
Another reason for the high overtime tab: shortly after Owens was sworn in as county executive and Simonds became chief, captains and lieutenants were allowed to rejoin the union, making them eligible for overtime. The county's 23 captains and 77 lieutenants made more than $2 million in overtime last fiscal year, which ended June 30. Firefighters and paramedics received the rest.
Simonds stressed that he has consistently stayed within his overall budget, $65.6 million last year. "We were fiscally sound on our budget mark."
Even a small savings would be a big help in Anne Arundel, where dollars for public safety are scarce. After the County Council forced Owens to spend $1.5 million on pay raises, she fired 16 police officers, cut positions from the fire department, shifted 15 firefighters out of North County and called off both departments' training academies.
The police officers union this month took out a full-page newspaper ad attacking Owens. Firefighters picketed while distributing fliers saying she jeopardized the safety of residents.
Owens, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on fire department overtime.
Last fiscal year, the highest-paid county employee was Capt. Keith Swindle, who took home $144,030. The list of county employee salaries obtained by The Sun did not include school salaries, which are paid out of a separate budget. Swindle's end-of-the-year base salary of $70,633 was more than doubled by overtime. Swindle, who supervises the hazardous materials and dive teams based at Jones Station in Arnold, worked what amounted to about 70 extra days last year.
He is a 22-year employee and has completed more than 500 hours of specialized training.
The next four highest-paid county employees were Capt. James W. Hardesty Sr., Lt. Conrad C. Listman, Lt. James C. Rostek - all of the Fire Department - and Owens' chief administrative officer, John Brusnighan. All three fire officials earned at least $55,000 more than their base salary last year.
Division Chief John M. Scholz, the fire department's spokesman, did not grant permission for any firefighters to talk for this article.
Union officials said the county frequently uses the high salary figures that result from overtime as a bargaining chip during contract negotiations. They said the county is paying out too much overtime when it should use that money to hire more paramedics and firefighters.
"It can be a way of sidestepping hiring personnel that's desperately needed," said George Burke, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, which is based in Washington.
In the short run, it is less expensive to pay overtime than to hire, train and pay salary and benefits for new employees, Simonds said. In the long run, it's about even, say county officials.
There is a downside, Simonds added: "Overtime does put additional stress on employees."
For firefighters, overtime isn't based on a 40-hour work week. They work 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off, and they receive overtime for working any additional time. All overtime must be approved by battalion chiefs, Scholz said.
Firefighters get occasional days off to reduce the overall number of hours they work each month, in addition to vacation and sick leave.
Shifts start and end at 7 a.m.
If a firefighter calls in sick before 7 p.m., the department calls potential replacements, starting with those firefighters who have logged the least overtime.
If a firefighter calls in sick after 7 p.m., the department tries to find someone already working to stay through an additional 24-hour shift. If it can't find anyone, a firefighter might be forced to stay at work.
Dillon questioned whether the system is abuse-proof and suggested the possibility of a larger roving pool of firefighters and managers who would fill in.
"I know sometimes games can be played with overtime as far as calling out and maybe a buddy picking up your shift," Dillon said. "Maybe we should look into that to make sure that's not occurring."
Scholz said the system is designed to prevent abuse and managers monitor for patterns in sick-day use.
To help hold overtime in check, the department wants to put in place more stringent policies about scheduling leave. If the department is aware of vacancies further in advance, it might be able to prevent some overtime, Simonds said. "That's one of my very top priorities."
But Scholz also defended overtime spending. Without it, he said, county residents would see diminished service. The department must have a set number of firefighters per engine, ladder truck and ambulance.
"Obviously it's not acceptable for us to put a piece of equipment out of service," he said.
Firefighter overtime nationwide has grown since Sept. 11, 2001, said Mark Light, the deputy executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs in Fairfax, Va. He said it is common for departments to use overtime to meet minimum staffing requirements and to pay it to lieutenants and captains, but some departments rely heavily on overtime.
"Can a department sustain that in the long run - a five- or 10-year period - or do you end up with an issue where people say, 'Hey, the overtime is available, but my time is more valuable than the money.'"
Anne Arundel union officials said part of the county's problem is a misuse of the overtime budget. The Fire Department turned to overtime last year when it expanded into an old warehouse in Millersville. Simonds said he had no choice after county staff turned down his request for capital funding for the project.
At least three firefighters and one fire captain worked evenings and weekends for nearly a year on the warehouse project, hanging drywall and building framework. The warehouse is now used for fire offices, equipment storage and training.
"The union took exception to firefighters having to do this," union official Dietz said.
Scholz said the department did not calculate how much overtime was paid to employees who worked on the warehouse. Simonds, however, said the county "got huge returns" for what was spent.
"The overtime budget is there to help fulfill the mission of the fire department," Scholz said. "It was a good use of personnel, and it was a good use of money. ... This is the only way we could get this project completed."