The Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a $200,000 measure yesterday to improve the recruitment of minority firefighters, despite objections by County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and his top fire official that the funding is unnecessary.
The county's current class of recruits has one black and two Latino members, fewer minorities than any class since at least 1988. About 25 percent of the department's 961 fire and rescue employees are minorities, according to county figures.
Council members say that more funding is necessary to increase diversity because the current fire budget is already strained.
"It's impossible to rob from Peter to pay Paul," said council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), the resolution's sponsor. "There is no fat in the fire and rescue budget."
But Duncan and his fire administrator, Gordon Aoyagi, said it would be possible to manage without the extra funds. "We're only two weeks into the fiscal year, and our feeling was we should wait six months and ask for a supplemental appropriation then if we need it," Aoyagi said.
Despite his objections, Duncan will not veto the measure, according to spokesman David Weaver.
Aoyagi said the funds will be used to purchase advertisements in ethnic newspapers, revamp the selection process to be more minority-friendly, and, perhaps, hire a recruiting consultant.
Council members say it is necessary to improve the selection process before the next class of recruits is formed in spring 2005. The department has accelerated its recruiting to fill slots in three fire stations that will open in the next four years.
"We can't wait and get a supplemental in January," Perez said. "We needed to do this yesterday."
On Monday, the council's Public Safety Committee assailed Aoyagi and Duncan for saying that the extra money is unnecessary.
"How are you going to get the money to bring on a recruiter today and have enough money for everything else between now and January?" asked council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large).
"It will be tight," Aoyagi answered.
County officials attribute the decline in minority recruits to changes in the selection process imposed by county attorneys, who decided that race-conscious hiring might be unconstitutional.
"This is not a recruitment problem," Weaver said. "This is a conservative-activist-judicial problem." Weaver said that the diversity of applicants this year was "very good" and blamed the problem on a selection process that he said is skewed toward non-minorities. Duncan has ordered a reevaluation of the applicant tests as part of the overall examination.
But Perez said it is necessary to spend more on outreach. Five years ago, he said, the county spent $400,000 on firefighter recruiting. Until last week, though, there wasn't a full-time recruiter.
"Our recruitment efforts were not as significant as they should have been," Aoyagi said.
Perez said diversity is nearly as important to the fire department as basic supplies.
"This is not political correctness," he said. "We need to have a fire and rescue service that represents the community. It's a matter of operational necessity."