This column ran in the Capital on March 3, 2013 and
in the Maryland Gazette on April 3, 2013
As I watched the horrific video of police officers racing into Sandy Hook Elementary School, I was reminded yet again that our police officers and firefighters regularly put their own lives at risk to protect us. They should be compensated fairly for doing such difficult jobs well.
Unfortunately, Anne Arundel County has allowed our public safety salaries to fall so far behind surrounding jurisdictions that we are at risk of losing a large number of these professionals. For example, even after the 3% increase the county grudgingly gave at an arbitrator’s insistence, the average police officer with five years of service in Anne Arundel County will make $48,127 this year. If that police officer had started in the City of Annapolis or in neighboring Howard, Prince George’s or Baltimore Counties, they would be making 17% to 29% more. Firefighters are dealing with similar pay differentials. And as they rise through the ranks, Anne Arundel County police and fire personnel continue to make substantially less than their equals in most surrounding jurisdictions.
It has gotten so bad that a paramedic who has been with Anne Arundel County for seven years could forfeit their years of service, start over in Howard County, and be making 16% more money within two years. So unlike in the past when it was primarily the grizzled veterans who retired at the end of a long career, we’re now seeing people leave mid-career. As just one example, more than half of the 49 firefighters hired in May 2005 have already left.
What makes this situation even worse is that we have invested at least $76,000 in training every firefighter and police officer on our force, and as much as double that to train our paramedics. Since we will need to spend this same amount to train replacements for every police officer or firefighter who resigns, forcing our public safety personnel into a position where they feel they have to leave to be paid what they’re worth is fiscally stupid.
Astronomical training costs are not the only cost of underpaying our public service personnel. As a result of the high number of resignations, we have an unprecedented level of vacancies in both departments. Before the latest class of police recruits was hired, 9% of all police officer positions were vacant. And compared to the base level of staffing the Fire Department has had for years, we are currently short more than 89 firefighters or 11% of the force.
Since most shifts must be filled regardless of vacancies, this has resulted in a skyrocketing of overtime costs. In fact, Fire Department overtime spending doubled in the last two years and overtime costs exceeded $5 million last fiscal year in both the Police and Fire Departments.
One advantage Anne Arundel County has traditionally had is that we offered a generous benefit package. However, the county is in the process of revising these benefits. With about $1 billion in retiree health care benefits that have been earned but not funded, most people agree that some changes are necessary. However, some of the changes being proposed are severe.
We need to develop a multi-year plan to return to competitive compensation levels so we can rebuild our Police and Fire Departments. Some of the cost for doing this can be covered by savings elsewhere in the budget. For example, halving our police and fire overtime spending would cover a 5% pay increase for all police and fire personnel without even taking into account the savings in training costs that would likely ensue from such a move.