County Executive Robert R. Neall promised yesterday not to cut workers' pay by breaking union contracts, even though he likely will have temporary authority to do so starting today.
Leaders of the countyteachers' union vowed to hold the executive to his pledge.
"Our position is that a contract is a contract," said Tom Paolino, president of the 4,000-member Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. "If he says it's not his intention to fool with union contracts, we will hold him to his word."
Gov. William Donald Schaefer isexpected this morning to sign a state deficit-reduction bill that includes an amendment giving local governments limited and temporary power to cut the budgets of boards of education and other quasi-independent agencies. State law prohibits counties from touching those agencies once the annual county budget has been struck.
Yesterday, in asix-page letter to the governor, state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. explained that the amendment also gives local governments the right to cut workers' salaries by overriding collective bargaining agreements and the authority to cut specific line items from the budget.
The amendment is constitutional, Curran ruled.
"The courts have generally recognized such a justification when a government in response to severe financial problems reallocates resources so the vital public services are not diminished," Curran wrote.
Under the amendment, county governments are prohibited from cutting money for instructional materials or equipment and from eliminating classroom teachers. However, the limitation "does not forbid the reduction of salaries for these positions," Curran wrote.
Although he recommended the amendment to the state legislature, Neall has been saying all week that he never believed it would give him the power to break contractsor cut line items.
Neall's press secretary, Louise Hayman, said the executive is not ruling out line-item cuts.
However, Neall promised not to use the power to tamper with union contracts.
"My methodology will be the same as it has been," he said. "I will ask employees (to take a pay cut). The decision is in their hands. I am not going to interfere with existing contracts. I will have to take other action."
If all county employees, including teachers, agree to wage concessions, the cut would be about 4 percent, Neall said. If teachers do not agree, county workers will be asked for a 9 percent reduction.
If no one agrees to wage concessions, 400 to 600 workers could lose their jobs, he said.
So far, TAAAC and the Fraternal Order ofPolice, Lodge 70, have said they will oppose wage concessions. Neallhas yet to hear from the five county and three school unions.
Theattorney general's opinion notwithstanding, Paolino said TAAAC will challenge the county in court if it tries to amend contracts.
The education lobby supports a tax increase rather than wage cuts.