U.S. court rules police, teacher furloughs illegal Order to restore pay may cost Baltimore at least $3.3 million

September 24, 1992|By Mark Bomster and Norris P. West | Mark Bomster and Norris P. West,Staff Writers Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and Roger Twigg contributed to this article.

Baltimore illegally furloughed thousands of teachers an police officers to save money this year, according to a federal court ruling that could cost the city at least $3.3 million in back pay.

The ruling could have implications far beyond Baltimore if employee unions around the state use similar arguments to challenge budgetary furloughs, union and legal experts said.

The decision by Senior U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Young involves members of the Baltimore Teachers Union and the city's Fraternal Order of Police, who were furloughed 2 1/2 days each between Jan. 16 and April 15. The judge ordered that their pay be restored within 30 days.

Judge Young said the city had a contractual obligation to pay employees their negotiated salaries.

"Once a fiscal year has begun, an employee has every reason to expect that the wage rates fixed for that year will remain constant throughout the year," he stated. "City employees were justifiably relying on full paychecks to pay for such essentials as food and housing."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the ruling could cost $3.3 million in back pay for teachers and police officers alone.

If other city workers who endured furloughs "exercised the same rights, we would have to make up [an additional] $4 million," the mayor said.

The City Union of Baltimore and Local 44 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees have similar lawsuits pending in city Circuit Court.

The mayor warned that furloughs were the city's only way of avoiding layoffs and that without that option, it could be forced to lay off workers if hit by a proposed cut in state aid this fiscal year.

Employee unions, meanwhile, saw the Sept. 18 ruling as a potent weapon for fending off attacks on their contracts.

"We are elated," said Lorretta Johnson, co-president of the 8,700-member Baltimore Teachers Union. "We never thought the mayor had the right to do what he did."

William H. Bolander, executive director of AFSCME Council 92, said more than 40,000 state employees were furloughed this year.

"I'm glad to see we're beginning to get some justice with this," he said of the judge's ruling. "I think it's quite possible that we can go back to this issue."

But police union officials were offended that the mayor would challenge the ruling a day after pledging support for the police at the funeral of an officer killed in the line of duty.

Herbert R. Weiner, an attorney for the police union, said the mayor's position "sends a real chilling message to the membership -- we can no longer trust the city. At a time like this, it really hurts."

City lawyers had argued that the furlough was legal under emergency state legislation last year authorizing local governments to take drastic action to deal with cuts in state aid.

In his decision, Judge Young did not rule on whether a piece of that legislation known as the Neall Amendment was constitutional.

But he also said the legislation doesn't give Baltimore the authority to break contracts with its workers.

A contract could be broken only if it was necessary to serve an important public purpose, the judge said, and in this case, he said, it was not.

He went on to note that the cuts in state aid to the city amounted to a tiny fraction of its $2 billion budget for fiscal 1992. And they came on the heels of a property tax cut of 5 cents per $100 of assessed value.

"Alternatives always exist to imposing the cost of budgetary shortfalls on a class of contracting parties such as city employees," Judge Young said. "The city could have shifted the burden from another governmental program, or it could have raised taxes, an option the court recognizes would not have been popular among politician-legislators."

Legal authorities were still sorting out the ruling's implications last night.

In Baltimore, the most immediate question is the effect it will have on the other lawsuits by city employees.

"The chances are that the decisions will follow Judge Young's decision," said Ambrose Hartman, deputy city solicitor.

If that happens, Mr. Schmoke said, "layoffs would be our only alternative. Our choices for dealing with a midyear economic crisis are limited."

"These cases are invariably going to turn on the particular facts ,, and circumstances," said Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions for the state attorney general's office, who had not read the ruling.

If employees in another jurisdiction challenge a similar furlough, a judge is likely to look closely at the reasons raised by the local government in taking that action, he said.

"If the issue is the justification, then that justification -- or lack of it -- is going to depend on the particular facts," Mr. Schwartz said. "That's going to vary significantly from one place to another."

Margaret-Ann Howie, a legal expert with the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said the ruling could clear the way for challenges to any local government that imposes similar furloughs.

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