Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and County Council members said yesterday that they would likely call for an evaluation and audit of the Fire Department's ever-increasing overtime spending.
Council members said they were surprised to learn that Anne Arundel spent millions more in overtime last fiscal year than did neighboring fire departments, and that Chief Roger C. Simonds paid firefighters time and a half to renovate an old warehouse.
Some council members said they want County Auditor Teresa Sutherland to investigate the policies and expenditures that led to eight firefighter supervisors cracking the top 10 list of highest-paid county workers.
"We're going to keep an eye on it," said Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, "and I guarantee there's going to be more scrutiny in the future."
Owens said she was not surprised that Anne Arundel spent more in overtime than other area counties, but said she did not approve Simonds' decision to use overtime for the warehouse renovation.
"I just don't think it was ... politically wise," Owens said.
She added that she would likely appoint a team to evaluate whether the county should hire more fighters to reduce overtime. National staffing standards recommend four firefighters ride each piece of equipment; Anne Arundel maintains the minimum staffing for fire engines and ladder trucks at most of its stations.
Fire administrators and union officials said the way to significantly reduce overtime is to hire more firefighters - a decision that rests with the county executive.
"There's no simple fix, there really isn't," Owens said.
Division Chief John M. Scholz, the Fire Department's spokesman, said he believes the attention resulting from an article yesterday in The Sun might help the department find ways to reduce overtime.
"It is an opportunity for us," he said.
The article detailed how some firefighters nearly doubled their pay through overtime. One fire captain with a base salary of $70,633 earned $144,030.
Anne Arundel, which has 631 paid firefighters, spent $7.2 million on overtime for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Baltimore County has 1,010 firefighters and spent $837,150. Howard County has 287 firefighters and spent $1.6 million.
"I was surprised at the numbers," said County Council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican. "It was certainly more overtime than I anticipated."
Overtime at stations
Scholz said that most overtime is used to fill positions at fire stations, but that it is occasionally used for other projects such as the warehouse renovation. He said he couldn't recall what the other examples were.
Throughout last year, the fire chief used overtime to pay a crew of at least three firefighters and a captain to convert part of a county warehouse into offices, storage space and a training room. Simonds authorized the overtime to complete the project after county staff denied him capital funding.
Owens said that if she had known of the project last year she would have directed Simonds to talk to the county's service office that hires contractors.
Scholz said yesterday that Fire Department administrators have begun an analysis of whether they wasted money on the project by using the firefighters. The captain made $42 an hour doing tasks such as hanging drywall.
County fire union President Keith W. Wright noted two other instances where overtime was used for what he called "nonessential" activities: staffing the County Fire Expo, an equipment demonstration every October, and teaching from the educational fire trailer.
"Those things are important, but in a way they're frivolous," he said. "And the frivolous things should go first."
This would not be the first time the Fire Department's overtime spending has been audited. In 2000 - when the department spent about half of what it does now on overtime - Sutherland commissioned a study of the department because its overtime costs seemed to be getting out of control, she said.
The audit was small in scope and found a handful of management troubles, such as improper documentation of overtime.
"We worked with every point and tried to repair every point," Scholz said.
This also would not be the first time Owens has analyzed Fire Department staffing levels. She ordered a study near the beginning of her first term, which started in 1998.
"We're at the point where I think we need to do an analysis again," she said. But she added that she doesn't expect the investigation to find that hiring would save money.
Part of what is at issue is whether it would be cheaper to hire more firefighters and pay them salaries and benefits, or continue pouring money into the department's overtime account.
Benefits of hiring
Dillon pointed out that even if the cost is the same, there are benefits to hiring more firefighters. It could improve service and morale, he said.
Owens said it is a tough time to consider hiring more firefighters.
After the council forced her to spend $1.5 million on pay raises in June, Owens fired 16 police officers, cut positions from the Fire Department, shifted 15 firefighters out of North County and canceled both departments' training academies.
"I don't know how it's going to get better for the Fire Department when she cut the Fire Department [training] class," said Councilwoman Barbara Samorajczyk, an Annapolis-area Democrat. "I see it as a problem that's going to get worse."