The county should hire more firefighters and paramedics to cut back on fatigue in the ranks and reduce the Fire Department's reliance on paying employees overtime to cover shifts, the county auditor said in a new report.
County Auditor Teresa Sutherland also recommends the county try to win concessions from the firefighters' union that would cut overtime expenses, which have jumped nearly 35 percent in two years.
"If they don't do something to modify it, they'll always have a problem," Ms. Sutherland said Friday. "You'll never eliminate overtime, but you can manage annual and sick leave so that you don't create overtime problems."
While Police Department supervisors can deny leave requests if the department would have to pay someone overtime to cover the shifts, the Fire Department must grant the requests if employees have earned the leave.
The Fire Department spent $7.8 million on overtime in fiscal 2003. That was 23 percent of all salaries and wages paid, compared to 11 percent for the Police Department, 8 percent for the Department of Detention Facilities and 6 percent for the Sheriff's Office.
In August, County Executive Janet S. Owens appointed a committee to study overtime issues after it surfaced that the department paid firefighters more than $135,000 in overtime to rehab a department warehouse and office spaces in Millersville.
The committee last month recommended ending 24-hour shifts, cutting middle management jobs and increasing funding through cell phone taxes or other fees.
In her Feb. 17 report to the county executive and County Council, Ms. Sutherland said other things contribute to overtime costs in addition to the leave schedules.
For example, firefighters and paramedics are charged only 19.6 hours leave for every 24-hour shift they take off. Ms. Sutherland said the county could save $1.6 million in overtime expenses if they were charged for every hour of leave they take.
The county could do so unilaterally because the issue isn't addressed in the union contract, Ms. Sutherland said.
Keith Wright, president of Professional Firefighters Local 1563, couldn't be reached for comment Friday.
County budget officials have said paying current firefighters overtime is cheaper than hiring new ones, since the county would also have to pay for benefits for the new employees.
In her six-page report, Ms. Sutherland agreed, saying it would have cost $6.7 million to hire additional full-time workers to cover the shifts for which the county paid $5.9 million in overtime.
"However, in my opinion, the incremental cost of hiring additional employees is not that significant considering the positive effect the additional employees would have on reducing worker fatigue," Ms. Sutherland wrote.
Fire Chief Roger Simonds has said he wants about 180 more firefighters and paramedics, which would cost about $10 million a year.
Ms. Sutherland also found that firefighters use much more disability leave than other county employees. Looking at 10 recent Fire Department retirees and 10 Police Department retirees, she found that firefighters had used 72 percent of the disability leave they earned and police officers just 34 percent.
Chief Simonds' spokesman, Division Chief John M. Scholz, said he couldn't discuss the report in detail Friday because the new union contract hasn't been signed.
Ms. Owens' spokesman, Matt Diehl, said she was waiting for the county budget office's analysis of the committee's report before commenting. There is no scheduled date for that analysis to be done.