Four unions, Gary declare stalemate No funds available for pay raises, county executive says

Bargaining units 'uneasy'

Administration pushes for changes in pay, pension systems

March 03, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

As much as bleak financial forecasts or union demands, County Executive John G. Gary's reform agenda has hampered labor talks, adding a political dimension absent in past years.

On Friday, the Republican administration declared an impasse with four employee unions representing 35 percent of the county's work force.

Labor negotiators have requested salary and benefit increases ranging from 5.4 percent to 17.5 percent, according to county calculations. Mr. Gary has said the county cannot afford raises this year for any of the county's 3,500 employees.

While he is negotiating the employment contracts, Mr. Gary also is trying to change the pension and pay systems.

Administration officials say that, while unpopular with labor in the short term, the revisions would preserve county jobs.

"It's not something the county executive has looked forward to doing," said County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe said. "But we have to do it."

Negotiations between the administration and bargaining units representing police patrol officers, detention officers, firefighters and deputy sheriffs will be placed in the hands of federal mediators this week. The administration will continue meeting with three other bargaining units, representing clerical and blue-collar staff, and police sergeants.

But County Council members, who received a briefing Friday on the stalemate, acknowledged that those talks are likely to end soon in impasse.

"It does not look good," said Councilman George F. Bachman, a Linthicum Democrat. "It's a give-and-take process. From what I've seen so far, it's all take and no give on the county's side. The bargaining units are uneasy out there, and they have a right to be."

The council may end up as arbiter of the labor dispute before Mr. Gary submits next year's budget on May 1. Anne Arundel unions are prohibited from striking by certain contract provisions and because the groups don't come under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, Mr.Scheibe said. If mediation fails, the contract would be set by the Republican-majority council.

The reason for the impasse is part financial, part political. County projections show that revenue is barely keeping pace with inflation. Mr. Gary won office in 1994 as a fiscal reformer and says he intends to keep his promises without resorting to layoffs or employee buyouts, which neighboring jurisdictions such as Baltimore County have turned to as a way of reining in costs.

"Those municipalities have not changed the way they are doing business," said Lisa Ritter, Mr. Gary's spokeswoman. "We are going to be in the same situation if we don't mind our pennies."

Employee salaries and benefits account for 75 percent of the county's $733 million budget. A 1 percent raise for all county employees, including schoolteachers, would cost $5.5 million, equal to a 4.5-cent increase in the property tax rate, county officials say.

But the county's tax cap, passed by voters in 1992, allows property tax revenues to grow only at the rate of inflation. That rules out any rate increase above roughly 1 cent. Mr. Gary has said he will not raise the county's "piggy-back" income tax.

"That's the backdrop that we're up against," said John R. Hammond, the county's financial officer. "This is the fiscal reality of the 1990s. The money is not coming in as it did."

In all, county unions have asked for a $9.2 million raise for the fiscal year beginning July 1. That does not include the county's 550 firefighters, whose union did not present a formal salary proposal.

Proposed wage increases -- excluding health and retirement benefits -- range from 3 percent to 5 percent by bargaining unit.

Labor leaders have not won raises since 1994, when county employees received a 6 percent increase. That increase now costs the county $20 million in salaries and benefits.

"We think we can fund our proposals from the existing budget," said Dennis P. Howell, president of Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 70, which represents 700 active and retired police officers. The union is planning a march tomorrow night on the Arundel Center to present its case to the council.

"Let's hope and pray that federal mediators will be able to get the county to listen to what we are saying," Mr. Howell said.

Mr. Gary has pledged to grant employees a pay raise before his term expires in 1998, even if it means forgoing new programs and projects for a year.

"But this is not that year," said Mr. Scheibe, who presented the administration's case to the council Friday. "We do not have the money."

In the proposed salary and pension revisions, the time it takes employees to reach the top of the pay scale would be extended and pension cost-of-living increases would be paid for with retirement fund earnings. The administration also wants to establish a second pension plan for new police employees that labor leaders say would lead to departmental tension by extending by five years the time needed for newcomers to retire.

"Our salary system is broken," Personnel Officer Hilton Wade said Friday.

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