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County Begins to Douse Firefighters' Extra Pay

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2004; Page AA03

After revelations that Anne Arundel County firefighters received significant salary boosts in fiscal year 2003 because of overtime -- in some cases, compensation nearly doubled -- an audit ordered by the County Council determined the department needed to "reduce its reliance on overtime."

But previously undisclosed salary data gathered by The Washington Post show that overtime pay for the following fiscal year remained at the levels that ignited the controversy, as firefighters once again dominated the list of the highest-paid county employees. In fiscal 2004, which ended June 30, 85 firefighters made more than $20,000 in overtime and other additional pay, for example, and the average firefighter added more than $11,000 to his or her base pay.

Now, with new policies and a new fire chief, overtime has decreased dramatically during the first five months of fiscal 2005, and county officials predict it will continue to drop as the government hires more firefighters.

"I think we're going in the right direction," said Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. (R-Pasadena). "It just takes a while to get there."

In fiscal 2001, the county paid firefighters $5.8 million in overtime and other additional payments above their base salary. That number jumped to $7.4 million the next year and spiked at $7.8 million in fiscal 2003. It fell to $7.2 million in fiscal 2004, when once again the highest-paid employee was not the county executive or any member of her cabinet. Rather, it was a fire lieutenant who had a base salary of $67,269 but, with more than $70,000 in overtime, made nearly $138,000.

Take away the overtime, and the picture of the last fiscal year's compensation changes dramatically: The highest-earning employees were the chief administrative officer, the state's attorney and the director of public works.

But once overtime is factored in, the three highest-compensated employees in fiscal 2004 were firefighters, as were 47 of the top 100 wage earners, according to county records. There were 24 firefighters who made more than County Executive Janet S. Owens's $102,257 salary.

"We have an absolutely fantastic fire service, but it was used to not very tight management controls," Owens said.

After the Baltimore Sun last year ran a series of articles about the overtime spending, Owens appointed a task force to look into the issue. Former Chief Roger Simonds Sr. was forced to resign in part because of the overtime issue.

Fire officials said they are now implementing the recommendations that came out of the task force's report. And cutting overtime is a top priority for new Chief Ronald D. Blackwell, who took over the job in August, near the beginning of the current fiscal year, which began July 1. Since then, overtime pay has decreased.

The county is on track to spend $5.5 million on overtime and other additional pay this year. But as more firefighters are hired, that final figure could drop to $5 million or lower, which would mark a decrease of 30 percent from last year, officials said.

"The historical dependence on overtime needed an adjustment, and we've made our supervisors more aware of that," Blackwell said in an interview. "But over time, one of the key factors will be that the county executive has put us on a track where we are going to do a lot of hiring. So those overtime numbers should stabilize at something far less than we have seen."

The county plans to hire at least 150 new firefighters by 2007, said John Scholz, a division chief and spokesman. The new hires would allow the department to add a fourth shift of firefighters, reduce overtime pay and cut down on the stress placed on current firefighters. The department now has three shifts of firefighters. Each shift works one 24-hour period and then has the next two days off.

The fourth shift would allow firefighters three days off for every 24-hour shift. But it takes time to hire so many more employees because they have to complete a course of training before joining the department, Scholz said.

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