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Owens is due to get report on fire overtime


For four months, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has remained silent while a task force has evaluated her Fire Department and its record-setting $7.2 million overtime tab.

By the end of this week, when the task force turns over its report, Owens will inherit the problem.

"It's going to be her taking the lead," said County Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks. "The council is going to be looking for a lot of quick solutions."

Several former and current officials, including Middlebrooks, predicted Owens will use the suggestions as fodder for a tax increase to pay for more firefighters and paramedics.

They also said the task force's findings will go a long way toward determining the future of embattled Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds, an Owens appointee.

The group will likely urge Owens to hire more paramedics and firefighters, abolish the 24-hour shift and impose stricter controls on sick and vacation days. Some doubt Owens will make changes because they would cost too much money.

"Quite candidly, I expect this report to just go on a shelf like many other committee reports," said Keith W. Wright, president of the Anne Arundel Professional Fire Fighters union.

Owens declined to comment for this article.

She formed the task force in August after The Sun reported that the department exceeded its overtime and overall budgets by more than $800,000 each for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Some firefighter supervisors doubled their pay with overtime, and 23 earned more than Owens, who makes $101,999 a year.

An analysis by The Sun found that county leaders consistently have chosen to pay overtime instead of hiring new employees, that the union has secured numerous overtime-creating perks, and that Simonds had made few attempts to rein in costs

As the task force held public meetings over the past four months, Owens has declined to speak publicly about the Fire Department's budget woes.

Two former Arundel county executives, John G. Gary and O. James Lighthizer, said forming a task force can help provide a leader with political cover.

"She did it to avoid having to take the responsibility herself," said Gary, a Republican who lost to Owens, a Democrat, in the 1998 election.

The two former executives also said the task force - overseen by a top aide to Owens - can make recommendations, such as hiring more firefighters, that lend support to a tax increase.

"I see them coming back with recommendations that the world is falling in ... and she is going to say, 'I really need to increase the Fire Department [funding],'" Gary said.

Owens is pushing for the state General Assembly to allow her to impose a cellular phone tax on Arundel residents.County officials said an 8 percent tax on cellular phone usage would yield $10 million for next fiscal year.

Whatever she decides to do, Wright said some firefighters have become frustrated that she has not defended the department's use of overtime.

"It really infuriates my members to have overtime be criticized, because they know that overtime is really what runs this department," he said. "It's like telling somebody to do something and then yelling at them for doing it. It's a Catch-22."

While Simonds has hinted that he is frustrated with the lack of support from county leaders, some suggest Owens should have been even tougher on her chief.

In addition to the rising overtime tab, Simonds' use of overtime money has been scrutinized. He used about $135,000 in overtime funds to pay firefighters to renovate a warehouse for the department's use. He had been denied capital funding for the project and went outside the budget process to complete it - a move Owens later said was "not politically wise." She has said she did not approve the expenditure.

Fire Department spokesman Division Chief John M. Scholz said Owens knew about the project but did not know that it was paid for with overtime funds.

Lighthizer and Gary said they would have fired a department head for spending money on unauthorized projects. But Wright contended that Owens should have stood behind Simonds when the task force criticized him for the warehouse renovation. He said Owens knew about the project and toured the warehouse during the year it was being renovated.

"She had ample opportunities to put a halt to it," Wright said.

Wright also said Simonds has been affected by the task force's four-month assessment of his management. "They're second-guessing so many of the things that he has done," he said.

Lighthizer, a Democrat who served as county executive from 1982 to 1990, said, "If you appoint a committee to assess the management of a particular department, it says you don't have confidence in the person managing the department."

Middlebrooks said it will be Owens' job to address the chief's future, not the council's.

Asked whether Simonds will continue as chief, Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk said: "The answer to that will depend upon what the committee finds. He has a certain philosophy, and I'm not sure whether the committee is going to agree with it or not."

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