City employees' pyrrhic victory?

September 28, 1992

Baltimore City officials say they will ask Senior U.S. District Court Judge Joseph H. Young to reconsider his decision that this year's budgetary furloughing of thousands of teachers and police officers was illegal. If the judge refuses or reaffirms his ruling, the city pledges to pursue the matter in an appeals court.

The stakes are high.

If the city has to compensate the lost pay of members of the Baltimore Teachers Union and the Fraternal Order of Police -- who issued the legal challenge -- the move would cost the city $3.3 million. But if other furloughed municipal employees -- who have similar suits pending -- also are entitled to restitution, that would total an additional $4.3 million. And, according to Judge Young's ruling, all of that would have to be coughed up within 30 days. "It puts us in a terrible bind," says Deputy City Solicitor Ambrose T. Hartman.

Organizations representing municipal employees, predictably, are overjoyed about Judge Young's decision. But that joy, particularly if the judge prevails, may be short-lived.

Faced with an unbudgeted cut in state aid that could be as much as $20 million, the city already is grasping for straws. If the city has to pay another $7.6 million in court-ordered restitution to its employees, drastic layoffs could become inevitable. In that case the furlough compensation might turn out to be nothing more than a final salary envelope to go with pink slips.

"It's a difficult year," city Budget Director Edward J. Gallagher said of the seemingly unending barrage of bad news. "It just keeps coming."

The last time Baltimore was enmeshed in a situation even close to this was in 1977, when a court told the city to pay municipal employees their negotiated pay increments. The city appealed and won -- because the Board of Estimates had not put the increments in the approved budget. This time the salaries for the furlough days were actually in the budget. "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," Judge Young decreed.

This ruling could have profound consequences, if employee organizations around the state use similar arguments to challenge budgetary furloughs. In upholding the sanctity of a contract once entered into,Judge Young said the city could have made furloughs unnecessary by shifting money from other programs or "raised taxes, an option the court recognizes would not have been popular among politician-legislators."

Considering the enormous implications of the ruling, the city is right in contesting Judge Young.

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