Hundreds of county workers chanting, "No cuts, no cuts," descended on the Arundel Center yesterday evening, protesting proposed wage cuts designed to help the county offset $7.9 million it will lose in state aid.
The crowd of about 600 began gathering at 5:30 p.m. in the parking lot of the Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. They marched down Rowe Boulevard to Calvert Street, then up the stairs of the Arundel Center to the County Council chambers -- where a bill giving County Executive Robert R. Neall broad powers to cut wages would be presented to the council.
County police officers in uniform led the march, then stood quietly while their wives, children and girlfriends held signs reading, "Hold the line between you and crime" and "Don't take food out of our mouths."
Other county employees were more boisterous, demanding that Neall find some alternative ways to offset the loss of state aid.
"There are a lot of ways to save money besides cutting people's salaries," said one man who would not give his name but works for the county Department of Utilities.
Unions staged the demonstration after Neall announced a possible 3.6 percent pay cut for all county workers last week.
The bill being considered last night would give Neall broad power to make budget cuts and reopen the budget process. The council is scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote on the bill Monday.
The wage concessions are needed, Neall contends, to avoid laying off between 500 and 600 county employees.
The budget bill, signed Friday by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, gives Neall and the council the right to cut workers' salaries by overriding collective bargaining agreements and the authority to cut specific line items from the Board of Education budget.
Neall has said several times that he does not plan on using those expanded powers.
Although police officers in uniform were told not to talk to reporters because of a departmental regulation that forbids it without the permission of the chief, their families spoke for them.
"I really feel that they have to review their budget," one woman said. "It's easy to go to payroll and say: 'Cut, cut.' "
The woman, who would give her name only as Debbie, stood by as four of her five children, ages 3 to 10, stood outside the Arundel Center with handmade signs. Five-year-old Stacie's read: "My Daddy needs his job and the county needs my Daddy."
Many of the officers said they felt they did enough last year, when they gave up their pay raise to avoid layoffs.
"It's getting so you can only afford to live in the same place where the people you lock up live," one Northern District officer said.
Paul Little, 4, the son of Officer Jeff Little, held high a sign reading: "Mr. Neall, please don't take food out of my mouth."
Other county employees felt much the same.
"I think he's asking for too much. It's a countrywide problem, not a county-employee problem," said Gary McHugh, who works in the Department of Utilities and was marching with his wife and three preschool children. "It's gonna take food out of my family's mouth. I'm the only working member of my family."
Jim Bestpitch, vice president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 582, told his union members: "We've got to pack this meeting next week. We've got to let the County Council know we're not going to stand for this."
Lawyers are working with the AFL-CIO on challenging the bill Schaefer signed into law last week.
"We are not going to sit by and let our collective bargaining agreements go out the window like they didn't matter," Bestpitch said. "These are our families and our benefits. If they violate our contract, we are going to court."
Neall tried to sell his budget message to packed employee meetings yesterday, which didn't sit well with union leadership. "He's bypassing the union leadership and going straight to the employees," said Carol Buttrum, the head of AFSCME Local 2563 said. "It's unprecedented."
Last Tuesday, the county police union voted unanimously to oppose salary concessions. AFSCME Local 2563 also voted to oppose the wage cuts.
Tom Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, remained adamant yesterday that his union, which represents 4,000 employees, will not accept pay cuts. "We cooperated by not getting pay raises this year," he said.
School board members met last night to discuss budget cuts. Other unions representing county and school system employees have yet to vote on wage concessions.