The Anne Arundel County Fire Department has kept its overtime spending under budget for the first time, fire officials have announced, quieting an issue that was blamed for losing previous chiefs their jobs.
It didn't hurt that the budgeted amount was far higher than in past years.
In the fiscal year ending last week, the department fell $300,000 short of the $7.8 million budgeted for overtime and special pay. Overall, the agency's operating budget finished the year with a surplus of $2 million, the second consecutive surplus under Chief David L. Stokes' watch after 14 straight years of meeting or exceeding its operating limit.
Stokes, who announced Thursday that he will step down in the fall, and County Executive John R. Leopold credited the savings to fiscal responsibility and "tough decisions."
"We face difficult financial challenges in this county, and Chief Stokes has done an excellent job of reducing costs, recognizing that taxpayers expect fiscal responsibility and accountability," Leopold said at a news conference naming Stokes' successor, J. Robert Ray.
But the department benefited from having a larger overtime budget to begin with. The previous year's overtime budget was about $5.8 million, but the agency spent $6.6 million. Officials said spending tailed off in the second half of the year after Stokes assumed control of the department.
The department has battled issues related to overtime spending for years. In the fiscal year ending in 2003, the agency spent $7.2 million - nearly $1 million more than was budgeted - for overtime, an amount so high that eight of the 10 highest-paid Anne Arundel County government employees were firefighter supervisors, many of whom doubled their pay.
Some spending was blamed on mismanagement. Officials established a task force to review the agency's spending, and then-Chief Roger C. Simonds was eventually pressured to step down.
The department restructured to rein in costs, but by 2006, under new Chief Ronald D. Blackwell, the department spent $8.6 million in overtime - about $5.5 million over the budgeted amount. Blackwell was replaced when Leopold took over in the fall of 2006, and his departure was largely seen as a result of the agency's spending.
Battalion Chief Matthew Tobia said Stokes' track record shows that the agency has gotten a handle on its finances and is being more responsible.
"In past years when we have been budgeted a certain amount and exceeded it, the very first thing that comes out is, 'Can't you spend your money appropriately?'" Tobia said. "We are proud of the fact that we have spent less than the approved amount that was given to us."
Others note that while the total figure may be as high as those budget figures of the past, it is actually less given the fact that salaries have increased since then. In 2008, $7.2 million pays for less overtime than it did a year earlier, said council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, whose husband is a county fire lieutenant.
"If they are continually receiving pay raises, overtime will get more expensive," said Vitale, a Republican. "I can tell you that in the Vitale household, our fire lieutenants' [overtime] paycheck is less than it's been in recent years. That tells me they're reducing the amount of overtime."
Counties handle overtime differently. Baltimore County spent $720,000 in overtime out of a budget of about $736,000, said Assistant Fire Chief Mark Hubbard.
Tobia said that for years, county administrations subscribed to the idea that it was cheaper to pay overtime than to hire additional personnel, who carry extra benefits in addition to a full year's salary.
In 2007, the department created a fourth shift, and the labor union agreed to much more stringent rules regarding leave time.
"The fourth shift helped a lot, but a big part was looking at our department culture, which was, 'Any issue that comes up, throw overtime at it,'" Stokes said. "We had to find other ways to do things other than throw overtime at it."
Craig Oldershaw, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters Local 1563, said officers understand the need to reduce costs on overtime.
"It's wonderful when it's there, and our people would be glad to work it when it's there, but it's not a right," he said.
Leopold said he was pleased with the way the department budget has been handled during his tenure. He said he instructed all departments to curb spending.
"These are tough fiscal times, and it requires tough decisions," he said. "Chief Stokes understood that, and one of the reasons I decided to hire Deputy Chief Ray is that he has a reputation as a tough fiscal steward of our resources."