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Fire chief criticized for use of funds
Some say overtime spent to pay unapproved posts goes 'around the process'

By Julie Bykowicz and Ryan Davis
Sun Staff
Originally published August 17, 2003

For three years, Anne Arundel County Fire Chief Roger C. Simonds has tapped his department's multimillion-dollar overtime budget to help cover the shifts of two captains reassigned to posts not approved by county officials, Fire Department records show.

The two positions - one in communications and one in maintenance - were not listed in the budget approved by the County Council and county executive. It's a practice that other county fire departments say they avoid.

After the captains were pulled from their assigned fire stations, other supervisors worked their shifts, running up the overtime tally. The Fire Department has no figures, but based on the cost of paying overtime for two captain positions, the price tag could be as high as $200,000 each fiscal year.

The moves appear to be part of a trend in which Simonds has turned to overtime when he has been denied funding through regular budget channels. Last year he used overtime money to pay firefighters to renovate a warehouse for department use.

"I am concerned that it's going around the process of the budget and the chain of command in county government," said Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican.

Simonds was unavailable for comment Friday, said Division Chief John M. Scholz, the Fire Department's spokesman.

Scholz said the department has trimmed all the fat from its budget and has repeatedly asked County Executive Janet S. Owens to fund additional positions. The two captains are filling necessary roles, he said, and using overtime for the two vacancies is cheaper than hiring employees.

"The positions are created to fulfill a portion of the mission of the department, which obviously has the blessing of the council and the county executive," Scholz said.

"The council's upset about everything," Owens said Friday, defending her fire chief. "Whatever the chief did, he needed to do."

The county executive said she knew Simonds had assigned people to complete the "important" tasks in communications and maintenance, but she did not know exactly how they were being filled.

Audit may be asked

County Auditor Teresa Sutherland said the County Council does not have control over individual positions, so a department head can create posts as long as he stays within the agency's budget.

Simonds spent $800,000 more than his $65.6 million budget last fiscal year, though $600,000 of that resulted when money was transferred from the department's budget late last year.

Some council members said they will ask for an audit of the Fire Department's overtime, which was more than $7.2 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The county department consistently spends millions more in overtime than do fire departments in neighboring counties.

Last week, Owens said she did not approve Simonds' decision in the previous fiscal year to pay time and a half to a crew of firefighters and a captain for converting part of an old warehouse into offices, storage space and a training facility. The county administration had denied capital funding for the project, and elected officials said they were unaware that Simonds used overtime for nearly a year to complete the renovation.

The Fire Department is tabulating how much the project cost, Scholz said.

Unpopular moves

Council members have denounced the warehouse project and the two unauthorized positions as circumventing the budget process, and union members are angry that the unbudgeted captain positions have survived while 15 firefighter positions have been eliminated in North County fire stations. The full-time firefighters were reassigned to vacant shifts at other stations as part of an effort to reduce overtime by about $1 million.

By shifting Capt. Lee Cornwell to the communications section and Capt. Daniel Brown to the maintenance section, Simonds left their positions at the Pasadena and Jessup fire stations to be filled by using either available firefighter supervisors or overtime workers.

The pool of firefighter supervisors available to work vacant shifts without being paid overtime is small - particularly during holidays and the summer months, Scholz said. When no one is available, the department turns to overtime. Last fiscal year, eight of the 10 highest-paid county government workers were firefighter supervisors, many of whom nearly doubled their salaries with overtime.

Captains, who are the highest-paid Fire Department employees eligible for overtime, make about $42 an hour when they work extra shifts. Lieutenants can fill in for captains, and when top-scale lieutenants did that last fiscal year, they made about $40 an hour.

Keith W. Wright, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters, said that in tough economic times, positions that have not been approved through the budget process should be the first to go.

"They don't need to be there," Wright said of the two captains assigned to unbudgeted positions. "The most important thing we do is respond to emergency calls with firetrucks and ambulances, so before we cut staff in operations, we should make sure there is nothing else left to cut."

Important posts

After Owens asked Simonds in June to trim about $1 million from his overtime budget for this fiscal year, Simonds considered returning Cornwell and Brown to fire stations, Scholz said. But when the chief weighed the importance of their new positions, he decided that they were indispensable, the spokesman said.

Instead, Simonds transferred the 15 firefighters out of North County stations - a move that infuriated union leaders, residents and politicians. In late June, about 150 area residents protested in front of the Glen Burnie fire station, which lost six firefighters.

Cornwell, who was a captain in Pasadena, now works as operations officer at the fire communications center, where emergency calls are received and dispatched. He said he oversees four lieutenants and reports to a division chief for communications.

Brown, who was a captain in Jessup, now works in maintenance, where he monitors the breathing apparatuses that firefighters use inside smoke-filled buildings, Scholz said. He was transferred because of an injury but has been cleared to return to a station for about a year, fire officials said.

This year, Brown will focus on preparing the department for new breathing apparatuses that were secured through a multimillion-dollar grant.

Owens said there is no need to make these permanent positions and hopes that they will dissolve when the tasks are completed.


Inadequate funding

The union president didn't dispute that the two captains were doing important tasks, saying the county administration has failed to give the department adequate funding for the positions.

"These are positions that the fire chief felt were very important for the department, but the county administration has not cooperated to give him those positions," Wright said. "This is the only way he could get people where he felt he needed them."

Officials from Baltimore and Howard counties said their fire departments have no positions unaccounted for in their budgets.

Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis-area Democrat, said the council is looking into legislation that would prevent unapproved staffing changes, such as the ones Simonds made.

"I do not understand," Samorajczyk said, "how this can occur."
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