A Montgomery County Council panel gave initial approval Wednesday to larger overtime budgets for public safety departments that have greatly exceeded their share of such money in recent years.
County lawmakers recommended an additional $2.5 million in overtime funding for firefighters and $1.5 million extra for the county's corrections department.
But if recent history is any indication, that investment is unlikely to cover the overtime spending by either department.
Firefighters, for example, are on pace to spend $17.7 million on overtime in the fiscal year that ends June 30 -- about $7.4 million more than budgeted.
Still, county leaders say the rising overtime requests reflect funding shortages that have downsized departments and forced employees to work longer hours to perform necessary services.
"Often, overtime in police and fire is the better alternative to hiring more staff," said Councilman Phil Andrews, D-Gaithersburg/Rockville. "The reason is because the benefits [for those employees] exceed 60 percent of salary."
As first reported by The Washington Examiner, dozens of firefighters, transportation employees, and correctional and police officers in Montgomery are doubling or nearly doubling their salaries with overtime pay. More than 280 employees earned more than $30,000 last year in overtime pay, records show.
Those earning the most in overtime raked in more than $200,000 when their payments were included with their salaries.
"The issue that remains to be addressed regarding overtime," Andrews explained, is that "we're seeing a 20 percent increase in the number of people needed to fill a 24-hour shift; the trend is that employees are available for fewer hours than they used to be."
Andrews says it now takes six people to fill a 24-hour post in public safety departments, when it used to take just five.
But overtime spending has long exceeded the amounted budgeted in the wealthy Washington suburb.
Between fiscal 2008 and 2012, the fire department's overtime budget was between $9 million and $12 million, while its spending on overtime ranged between $12 million to $15 million during those years.
Pointing to the intensive job requirements, county officials say it's typical for public safety employees to bank the most in overtime payments each year.
Unionized public safety members earn pensions -- rather than 401(k)-style retirement payments for new general government employees -- that significantly drive up the cost to county taxpayers.
The full council must approve the overtime budgets later this month. Lawmakers are weighing higher property tax rates and an extension of the county's energy tax to cover its budget shortfall for next fiscal year.