In a decision that could set the pattern for Baltimore's 25,000 unionized workers, an arbitration panel has awarded city firefighters a 2.25 percent pay increase beginning July 1 -- just over half of what they had been seeking.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said through his spokesman yesterday that he does not expect to lay off any firefighters as a result of the panel's award, which will cost the city about $1.45 million. But spokesman Clinton R. Coleman declined to say whether the city would have to lay off workers if its other unions received similar raises, saying, "We're in negotiations."
In the past, raises given to city firefighters have set the tone for negotiations with other unionized workers.
Mr. Schmoke's preliminary $2.2 billion budget, released last month, makes no provision for employee raises. City finance and labor officials said they had not determined where the city would get the money to pay for employee raises but that they hoped to avoid layoffs or furloughs.
"All our options are open," said Labor Commissioner Melvin A. Harris. "We do not want to lay people off. We want to try to be fair to our employees. But we also have to look at our fiscal condition."
Last year, city workers received raises of about 2 percent, their first of cost-of-living increases in three years.
The 2.25 percent raise awarded by arbitrators to 1,736 firefighters and fire officers will boost the salary of a firefighter with five years' experience by $612 a year, to $27,841 annually.
Firefighters were seeking a 4 percent raise -- 2 percent in the fiscal year that will begin July 1 and another 2 percent in January. The city countered with an offer of 2.25 percent.
Under city law, if the city and the firefighters cannot reach agreement by March 1, both sides submit their final offers to a three-member arbitration panel. The panel, whose decision is binding, is required to select one offer or the other.
The request from the firefighters -- the only bargaining unit to have binding arbitration -- would have cost the city about $1.9 million, Mr. Harris said.
On Saturday, the panel selected the city's offer.
Mr. Schmoke said through Mr. Coleman that the panel's decision "confirms what we have been saying, that there is very little money in the budget for paying raises this year."
William V. Taylor, president of Baltimore Firefighters Union Local 734, said his members were unhappy with the decision.
"Our people have the largest workload in the state of Maryland," he said. "Everyone in the surrounding areas is getting 3 percent and above, and we felt the city could afford it."
The city is negotiating with 10 other bargaining units representing about 23,000 teachers, police, white-collar workers and blue-collar workers.
Officials of those unions said they hope to follow the lead of the firefighters and obtain at least modest pay raises.
"We're hopeful there will be pay raises," said Linda Prudente, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union.
City officials said they could not immediately say how much such increases would cost.
Among the possible sources of revenue to finance pay raises are cuts in the capital budget and increases in permit fees.
Several City Council members said the panel's decision on the firefighters' raise should not preclude a cut in the city's property tax rate, which at $5.90 per $100 of assessed value is by far the highest in Maryland.
"Usually, there's some sort of cushion for this. I think there's room for both," said Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, a 4th District Democrat.