In the next month, the Montgomery County Council will decide whether to fund 20 more firefighter positions
in its proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget. The impending decision follows an inspector general report released last month that found significant cost overruns and staffing shortages in the department.
County Executive Marc Elrich’s proposed $5.9 billion budget calls for $229.5 million toward Fire & Rescue and an additional 21 full-time-equivalent positions. These include 20 firefighters and one investigator for internal affairs.
But a counterproposal from the County Council’s staff members cuts the proposed Fire & Rescue budget by about $4 million, or 1.8%, from what Elrich put forward and adds only one full-time-equivalent position.
Fire Chief Scott Goldstein said on Thursday that the 20 new firefighters would fill the gaps for current firefighters training to become paramedics. Goldstein said the new backfill firefighters would be needed if a firefighter isn’t working a regular shift due to injury, is in training or other reasons.
“So 20 new firefighters are on the street. Those people become the equal offset to 20 firefighters going into medic training for the next medic class,” he said. “Today, when we send people to medic class, their backfill is a complete overtime cost. In the future, if these 20 positions were on board, the backfill for medic training would be with these 20 approved regular time positions.”
The number 20, Goldstein said, was a compromise with the county’s Office of Management and Budget that stems from the fact that the number of paramedic trainees ranges each year from the teens to the mid-30s.
As the council prepares to vote on and adopt a budget by the June 1 deadline, it faces the possibility of a tax revenue shortfall of as much as $600 million due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Council President Sidney Katz said in an interview Monday night that the council’s first priority is to
maintain a “continuity of service” from one fiscal year to the next. Once the budget is passed, he said, the council can come back to it later to add supplemental appropriations.
The additional firefighters would have to be trained and would likely not be on the street until July 2021, Goldstein said during the meeting Tuesday, causing the financial effect to take place in the FY 2022 budget.
In a nonbinding straw vote on Tuesday, the council unanimously supported the staff members’ recommendations for cutting the budget by $4 million and removing 20 new positions to decrease overtime.
Legislative Analyst Susan Farag acknowledged Fire & Rescue’s problems when it comes to overtime spending, citing a statistic included in the inspector general’s report that 180 firefighters were needed to meet the department’s minimum staff requirements without overtime from fiscal years 2015 to 2017. The findings came from the performance management and data analytics staff in county government.
Farag said she didn’t think the benefit of adding 20 positions would be worth the cost now.
“Unfortunately, it represents an $840,000 increase for FY 21, and we will not see results of how it helps to reduce overtime until FY 22,” she said.
Council Member Hans Riemer said at the meeting that funding the positions now would be better than waiting for fiscal year 2022, when the county will most likely have less money because of revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic.
“We’re going to have much more revenue to go around than next year,” he said during the virtual meeting. “If we can save money next year with an expenditure this year, that would make sense to me.
The council plans to talk more about its plans when it comes back to discussing budget modifications in the summer or fall.
Last month’s overtime report, authored by Inspector General Megan Davey Limarzi and released on March 26, found that:
·Overtime pay exceeded the department’s budgeted amount by at least $8 million in fiscal years 2017 through 2019.
·In at least one case, a county executive recommended service cuts to help balance the budget.
Katz, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, said he has reviewed the inspector general’s report, but the council hasn’t discussed it yet because committees haven’t been meeting due to the pandemic.
“As soon as we can have committee work again, that will be one of the first topics that we take up,” he said.
Katz said there are pros and cons to hiring additional employees in any county department.
“Over the years, because of the various cost overruns, we’ve looked at whether or not we could hire additional people, but of course, you also have to consider when you hire additional people that you have to have additional benefits,” he said.
Overtime cost overruns in Fire & Rescue totaled about $9.2 million during fiscal year 2019, according to the inspector general’s report.
The report zeroed in on $900,000 in overtime cost overruns in the department’s Equal Employment Opportunity/Diversity Office during fiscal year 2019 that weren’t included in the budget that year. The report stated that the inspector general’s office “received several complaints” about use of overtime in the Equal Employment office.
Until January, the Equal Employment Office handled programs such as equal employment functions for firefighters, community engagement, mentoring programs in the public school system and physical training for recruits. The Equal Employment Office has since closed, and Goldstein has proposed consolidating its functions into a new unit.
According to the report, Goldstein requested another captain from the county in 2018 to handle responsibilities in the Equal Employment Office, but the county budget office denied the request. Goldstein then assigned two full-time workers to the office, although neither was an “approved” position.
“Additionally, a number of other MCFRS staff members worked for the office on a sporadic basis, either using overtime, while being paid compensatory leave in exchange for their work hours, or while on a temporary detail to support the office,” the report said.
The report also states that there was a “lack of transparency” in the Equal Employment Office, and that a former Fire & Rescue service member said that within the office, workers had “complete freedom to work and assign overtime” at their discretion and that it was “common knowledge” that the work of the office was an “overtime scam.”
Four of the highest paid county employees in 2018 received between $85,000 and $174,000 in overtime pay, the report stated.
The inspector general’s office’s recommendations included:
·Requiring Fire & Rescue to get approval for programs through the budget process before committing resources.
·Holding managers “accountable” if they approve overtime that exceeds limits set by the
·Finding ways for full-time employees to do the job of the former Equal Employment Office.
Chief Administrative Officer Andrew Kleine, in his response to the recommendations, wrote that the department
concurred with all of the recommendations.
Kleine, in a letter to Limarzi on March 20, wrote that the department was imposing spending limitations, so there is “no misunderstanding for anyone involved.”
He also wrote that the fire chief has promised to take “appropriate action” against anyone who approves
overtime in excess of approved limits.
Bethesda Beat staff reporter Briana Adhikusuma contributed to this story
Dan Schere can be reached at email@example.com