Leaders of the police and fire unions will be meeting again with County Executive Charles I. Ecker this week in an attempt to convince him to exempt them from the five-day furlough expected to be shared by all other county employees.
Ecker announced the furlough plan lastweek, saying it would shave $1 million from the county's expected $14.5 million deficit. The County Council will vote on the furlough plan Dec. 2.
Firefighters say their situation is different from other county employees in that the money for their salaries comes from the county fire tax rather than the county's general fund.
The fire tax reserve fund has a surplus of more than $600,000 and can only be used for fire and emergency rescue services. Because of the surplus, there is no need to furlough firefighters, said Sean Kelly, president of local 2000 of the International Association of Firefighters.
Kelly and other union members met with Ecker and fire administrator Daryl R. McBride behind closed doors for 46 minutes Friday morning in an attempt to work out a compromise. Meanwhile, more than 70 firefighters -- some accompanied by spouses and children -- sat and stood in silent protest in the hallway outside Ecker's office.
Nothing was resolved, although both sides agreed to meet again this week. Ecker and Kelly said they were considering various alternatives but refused to say whatthose alternatives are.
Although Ecker has said repeatedly he does not want to lay off anyone, Kelly said the executive threated layoffs of 52 part-time firefighters and 10 to 20 full-time employees if the furloughs are not accepted.
Ecker acknowledged that layoffs were discussed, but said he didn't threaten anyone.
Regardless, Eckerbelieves all employees should share equally in the cuts. "It's very difficult for a secretary or another employee to say, 'I'm furloughed, why aren't the firefighters?' " he said.
Whether the union and the executive reach agreement or not, "Local 2000 will not take anyoneoff the job for any reason whatsoever," Kelly said. About the only leverage the union has, he said, is public pressure.
"Contrary to any public statements, it is the belief of our local that the furloughing of fire and rescue service personnel will have a major impact on public safety," Kelly said. "We feel it is a gross injustice to the citizens of Howard County to have such a vital service affected in anyway when they have already funded it with their hard-earned tax dollar."
Kelly said the union took pay cuts earlier with other county employees even though they weren't needed because of the fire tax surplus. "I hope we can generate public support," he said. "I don't wantthe public to think we've taken another hit and are complaining about it."
Dale Hill, president of the Howard County Police Officers Association, said police officers will also seek public support. They are planning full-page ads in local newspapers that would share statistics about losses they will suffer if furloughed.
Already, 25 percent of the rank and file have suffered losses amounting to 7 percentto 9 percent of their take-home pay as of June 30. The furloughs will add another 2 percent to that, he said.
Hill and other union leaders were meeting with their lawyer Friday afternoon to determine what options remain for them. They plan to share their plight with EckerTuesday morning.
"Once Mr. Ecker fully understands all the ramifications of furloughs (for police officers) there won't be any," said Bill Thompson, the union's attorney. "The police department can't take another hit."
The previous night, 75 officers attended a "screaming, yelling" union meeting that lasted a little over two hours and ended with a motion to formally oppose furloughs, Hill said.
Prior to the meeting, Hill reported that "a significant number of people" preferred layoffs to furloughs, but attorney Thompson said layoffs arenot being considered.
Like Kelly, Hill says the union's main concern is public safety. If police are furloughed, the only way the department will be able to cover routine patrols is to pull people off other specialties like the crime prevention unit, he said.