MARYLAND — Despite racking up thousands of dollars in overtime costs, public safety leaders across Washington County say they don’t believe hiring more employees to work at a lower hourly rate is the answer to saving money.
Hagerstown Fire Chief Steve Lohr said his department budgeted $250,000 to pay overtime expenses in fiscal year 2017 — and spent nearly every penny of it.
He said spending that amount was fairly small, compared to paying new employees a full-time salary, and taking on the costs of benefits and buying more equipment.
“Overtime is always cheaper than a full-time position,” Lohr said.
The Hagerstown Fire Department is required to have 15 firefighters on duty at all times, and overtime costs can mount when personnel respond to a call toward the end of their shift and have to stay over.
If everyone worked a 40-hour work week, or 2,080 hours a year, the fire department wouldn’t have to pay overtime. But the reality, Lohr said, is that vacation and sick days make it so most employees only work about 1,850 hours a year.
When that happens, administrators have no choice but to pay other workers overtime to cover the shifts.
“All of those hours add up,” he said.
Lohr suggested people who favor hiring new firefighters also have to consider the cost of equipping them.
He said it costs upwards of $10,000 to buy a firefighter turnout gear, an air pack and other necessities.
At the moment, the fire department is short one deputy fire chief, one training captain and three firefighters.
In a perfect world, Lohr said he would have 4.5 firefighters for every one firefighter he has now. But the fire department gets by with the help of volunteer firefighters in the city and across Washington County.
Hagerstown Police Chief Victor Brito said he agrees that it’s cheaper to pay overtime costs, which in some cases are funded by grants.
He said officers, just like firefighters, draw overtime when they work past their shifts in the event of an emergency.
“We can’t predict when something will happen,” Brito said. “… When our services are needed, we have to respond.”
He said officers also amass overtime when they have to testify in court.
“Overtime is something we’ll always have in law enforcement,” Brito said.
Just like firefighters, there are equipment costs to factor in. Buying each new officer a radio, sidearm, Tazer gun, handcuffs, pepper spray and other equipment costs $8,902.45, he said.
That cost includes a body camera and a ballistic vest, which is custom fitted to each officer’s individual physique.
“They’re not shared from shift to shift,” Brito said of the vests.
Officers started to wear body cameras after the 2015 incident involving Freddie Gray in Baltimore and similar ones in other parts of the country, where officers were accused of police brutality.
Washington County Sheriff Douglas Mullendore said that even if the sheriff’s office wanted to hire more deputies, the Gray case has made doing so more difficult because potential applicants don’t want to face the unwanted scrutiny.
As a result, they seek another career path.
“It sounds simple, but quite honestly, hiring deputies is not as easy as that,” he said.
Like Hagerstown firefighters and police officers, deputies typically accrue overtime when the job requires them to stay past their shifts.
Mullendore said the patrol division spent $216,560 in overtime in fiscal year 2017, and has budgeted $240,000 for fiscal year 2018.
Deputies also work overtime at Valley Mall and during extra-curricular activities at schools. But in those cases, the sheriff said, overtime costs are paid by the organization that hires the sheriff’s office to provide security.
Mullendore said the FBI recommends that police agencies should have 1.6 officers for every 1,000 people. The sheriff’s office has 1.2 deputies for every 1,000 people.
He said those deputies are responsible for patrolling 458 square miles.
“We do a really good job for the personnel we have … I’m really proud of the staff we have and the job they do,” Mullendore said.
R. David Hays, director of the Washington County Division of Emergency Services, said he agrees that in most cases, paying overtime is more cost effective than hiring new employees.
County officials recently budgeted for the hiring of eight new firefighters to work out of Washington County Special Operations headquarters on Frederick Street in Hagerstown.
He said each of those firefighters will cost $62,500 per year in salary and benefits, for a total of $500,000.
In all of fiscal year 2017, the division of emergency services spent $317,760 in overtime costs, Hays said. A majority of that overtime, or about $310,000, was compiled by 911 dispatchers.
He said the savings look good on the bottom line, but administrators have to consider the mental and physical impact the extra work is putting on the employees.
“It’s a morale killer,” Hays said. “We’re experiencing that to some degree at the 911 center.”
The center is required to have 10 dispatchers and supervisors on the day shift, and seven dispatchers and supervisors on the night shift, he said.
In some cases, Hays said, they have to work 18-hour shifts to cover the staffing requirements, then come back after a short break and do it all over again.
He said he believes the pay isn’t suitable because of the responsibility that goes with the job.
The salary range for a dispatcher is $33,110 to $55,000 per year.
Supervisors earn a slight bit more.