Changes sought in union pact Arundel services could go private

December 02, 1992|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Staff Writer

Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall told a group of business leaders yesterday that he needs to strike anti-privatization language in county union contracts if he is to deal with the recently enacted property tax cap.

In a speech to the Anne Arundel Trade Council, Mr. Neall said that a move toward privatization is key to downsizing government and that in coming years, the county will be able to provide only the most essential services. Mr. Neall has pledged to trim the county work force by 10 percent by the end of his term in two years.

The more than 1,200 county workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have a clause in their contracts prohibiting the county from laying them off and hiring private firms.

"If we don't get that language out, I can tell you, it's going to be very difficult to live with the tax cap," Mr. Neall said.

He said he would not increase the county's piggyback income tax, nor would he find some other way to get around the tax cap.

The union protection was born of another age, when local governments were flush with funds. The poor economy, state revenue cuts and the tax cap -- which limits the growth in property tax revenue to the rate of inflation up to 4.5 percent -- make job-protection language antiquated, Mr. Neall said.

"We have to have 1990s tools to deal with the problem," Mr. Neall said.

Mr. Neall can get the contract language removed in one of two ways: through negotiation with the union or by declaring an impasse and requesting a hearing before the County Council, which has the final say when negotiations between the administration and the union bog down.

"I'm going to ask the County Council to strike the language. They are the court of appeals and I need four votes," Mr. Neall said.

Union leaders were predictably unhappy with Mr. Neall's comments.

"We just went to impasse in May to keep the language in there and the County Council voted in our favor," said Carol Buttrum, president of AFSCME Local 2563, which represents 385 county clerical and technical workers. "I think the County Council has spoken. Period."

Union contracts expire June 30 and negotiations are set to begin shortly after the first of the year. Ms. Buttrum agreed with Mr. Neall that "there is no way" that the union would agree to strike the anti-privatization language in its negotiations.

Still, she said that Mr. Neall is "jumping the gun."

"You don't start out declaring an impasse before you sit down to good-faith negotiations," she said.

Jim Bestpitch, vice president of AFSCME Local 582, which represents 900 blue-collar county workers, said Mr. Neall's philosophy that privatized services can be delivered more efficiently and cheaply is a fallacy.

"A majority of the citizens would rather have their services applied by trained county employees that they have control over, rather than non-trained private contractors," Mr. Bestpitch said.

Although in the beginning a private contractor can provide services for less money, it ends up being more expensive in the long run. "A subcontractor has to maintain his margin of profit, whereas we're a non-profit organization," Mr. Bestpitch said.

Several council members said yesterday that they would not take a position on Mr. Neall's proposal until they have spoken both with him and union officials. Councilman George F. Bachman, a Linthicum Democrat, said Mr. Neall will have to convince him that privatization works.

"I'll be listening to both sides, but right now I'm leaning against privatization, per se. They're going to have to prove things to me," Mr. Bachman said.

Councilman Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Democrat, said he is concerned about the effect it would have on the lives of county workers who could be laid off and would be forced to take much lower-paying jobs. "You're not going to do the economy any good that way," he said.

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