Arbitrator to aid stalled police union-county contract talks

March 23, 1995|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,Sun Staff Writer

Unable to agree on work schedules and benefits for Howard County police union officers after six weeks of contract talks, county officials and union representatives have asked an arbitrator to help resolve their differences.

The two sides hope to revive negotiations next week, but police union sources said the county must be more flexible to keep the average police officer interested in working in Howard County.

"The bottom line is we want our officers to stay here," said James Fitzgerald, president of the Howard County Police Officers Association. "Everybody's walking around holding their breath. You don't want your people working like that."

The contract talks center on work shifts, improving the retirement plan, salaries and other benefits for the 230 union officers ranked below sergeant.

County negotiators could not be reached for comment. County Executive Charles I. Ecker would not comment on specifics of the negotiation process but said, "Our goal is to be competitive with other counties."

After deadlocking Friday, Mr. Fitzgerald said, the two sides selected an independent mediator from the American Arbitrators Association in Washington, D.C., to help them.

The mediator will serve as a link, speaking with each group separately about their interests and relaying that information to each side.

If the arbitration process does not work, the next step is fact-finding, where both sides would present a proposal to the mediator. The mediator would hear evidence and make a nonbinding recommendation to Mr. Ecker, who would decide whether to accept the advice.

The contract -- which affects the 296-member department for the fiscal year beginning July 1 -- must be agreed on before county budget hearings begin April 17.

Mr. Fitzgerald said scheduling is a primary dispute. Most police union members work two weeks of four days on and three days off, and then work four days with two days off. That schedule, in which each workday is 9 1/2 hours long, has been in place for about 10 years, he said.

Officers used their days off to take classes and provide day care for their children. Also, the 9 1/2 -hour day provides an overlap between the three work shifts in each day, providing police on the street while officers starting their day attend roll call, check their computer messages and work on reports. Union officials said the county has proposed several 8 1/2 -hour schedules.

"We've tried to compromise, but Ecker wants the whole loaf," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "He doesn't want to meet us halfway. The average citizen looks at public safety. If they call 911, they want you there. At adequate staffing, we can do that."

Union negotiators argued that the shorter days proposed by the county would leave about an hour when several police will be absent from the streets while officers change shifts.

Also, police union officials say, county officials are arguing for a plan that requires officers to work 24 extra days a year, therefore saving the county the expense of hiring more officers.

"We will not do anything in the negotiations that will reduce safety of citizens," Mr. Ecker said.

County officials have admitted that more officers are necessary. A new class of 27 recruits begins classes Monday, and the department will begin training another recruit class by January 1996, said Sgt. Steve Keller, a police spokesman.

Police say they also want to have a 20-year retirement plan figured into their contract, instead of the current 25-year eligibility to receive maximum benefits. They also want their salaries to be competitive with nearby counties'.

Both factors attract officers to Prince George's, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties each year, Mr. Fitzgerald said.

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