Gary, unions battle over wage issue Select pay increases in 'reclassifications' anger labor leaders

'It's a principle'

County executive defends raises amid stalled talks

March 12, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

The money is so tight in Anne Arundel that $36,250 -- about .005 percent of the county's annual budget -- has become a matter of political principle in a simmering labor dispute.

County Executive John G. Gary, who vowed that there would be no raises this year for the county's 3,500 employees, has by his own authority changed the job descriptions of 13 workers. The result is annual increases totaling $36,250 for four county attorneys, four clerks, three planners, a civil engineer and a billing supervisor.

That may not seem like much. But with four labor unions at impasse with the administration over new contracts -- and three others headed in that direction -- every public penny has taken on political importance.

Labor leaders say Mr. Gary, a Republican who campaigned as a fiscal reformer, is talking tough in public while giving private raises. But two "reclassified" positions are union jobs.

"Anytime you are in negotiations, anything you do takes on the air of conspiracy," said Lisa Ritter, Mr. Gary's spokeswoman. "The government cannot shut down simply because we are negotiating with unions."

But union representatives, who have not won raises at the bargaining table since 1994, say Mr. Gary finds money when he wants to.

Last year, Mr. Gary was criticized for trying to raise the pay of several top administrators, a bid he abandoned in the face of public pressure. None of the employees benefiting from the reclassification was appointed by Mr. Gary. The two union clerks will receive 5 percent raises, which labor leaders describe as "token." The nine management jobs -- which include three planning positions the County Council refused to upgrade last year -- will receive a 7 percent average pay increase.

"This is not a fight to be picked, it's a principle to be looked at," said Dennis P. Howell, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 70.

The reclassification, which does not need council approval, is a small part of Mr. Gary's agenda to reform Anne Arundel's personnel code as a way of bringing savings to a strained budget.

A 1 percent raise for all county employees would cost $5.5 million a year, equal to 4.5 cents on the county's property tax rate.

"The unions are comparing a flea to an elephant," said John R. Hammond, the county's financial officer.

Mr. Gary also has proposed legislation that would upgrade 37 county jobs, including the head of the Department of Aging. The result would be raises totaling $108,000.

That bill, which would establish a 40-hour work week and a salary system based on merit for 750 nonunion employees, will come before the council April 1.

Council members, who would resolve the labor dispute if mediation fails, have questioned Mr. Gary's political timing in tinkering with personnel regulations behind the scenes while legislation is pending.

But county officials say the reclassification is the culmination of a study that began during Robert R. Neall's administration. In 1993, Mr. Neall reorganized several county departments, resulting in some employees taking on new duties with the same job titles.

The administration commissioned a Baltimore consulting firm to identify jobs that needed upgrading. But the $100,000 study was never completed because the council cut its funding last year. County officials are now using parts of the study to update certain job descriptions.

"Everybody's doing more work," said Jim Bestpitch, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 582, which represents 900 county employees.

"If there should be any reclassifications, it should be for those who on a daily basis do the [jobs] that serve the public."

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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