No security for public employees Tighter budgets are squeezing out civil servants

'Just not making our bills'

County employees find additional jobs in effort to survive

March 24, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Civil service was once a metaphor for job security, a highly prescribed set of duties that brought annual raises, lavish benefits and a future free from worry of layoff or firing.

Not anymore.

On a cold evening last week, a line of Anne Arundel County police cars snaked through the Cromwell Light Rail Station parking lot.

Commuters wondered what disaster prompted the show of force. The police officers, more than 30 in uniform and with marked cars, had a simple answer: low pay and poor prospects.

The officers, 75 in all, were looking for second jobs. Each idled through the hourlong line for a shot at shifts next month as Mass Transit Authority security guards. Some waited in line three times to get more shifts.

"My family needs the money," said R. Gene Perry, a detective in the county's Northern District. "This has become a necessity."

The police job lineup part employment office, part labor rally is a potent sign of the times in Anne Arundel and other counties in the metropolitan area.

Many of Maryland's 193,000 local government employees, from police officers to highway workers to secretaries, are feeling squeezed by county administrations that are choosing this year to make changes in labor contracts and personnel codes.

Lee Whitlow, a nine-year veteran of the Anne Arundel police force, works four security jobs in addition to his regular patrols, racking up 100 extra hours of pay a month. The Cromwell light rail job is one of them.

His wife, Suzanne, is a 15-year veteran of the police force, having entered the academy at age 17. The couple's income is roughly $60,000, but with a newborn daughter, a $1,400 monthly mortgage on their Severn home and two car payments, extra work has become a way of life.

"We're just not making our bills," said Mr. Whitlow, 33. "You make commitments. Now we can't meet them without working overtime."

'A surly mood'

Although the federal government furlough was driven by partisan politics, the move by Maryland counties is rooted in slim economics. Property tax revenues have stagnated, and some counties find they are unable to borrow as much money as they once did.

But prevailing anti-government currents are inviting county executives to stand tall with public employees.

"America is in a surly mood," said Allen Schick, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "You don't wear a badge of honor when your employer isn't esteemed anymore."

And citizens are angry at the people who work for them.

"Let's face it government has done such a poor job over the last years of doing everything," said Robert C. Schaeffer, president of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association. "So if you work for the government, you've done a poor job."

Buoyed by public anger, several county executives are moving to cut labor costs, which account for the biggest chunk of local government budgets.

In Anne Arundel, 75 percent of the $733 million budget goes to payroll and benefits for 3,500 employees. Executive John G. Gary has proposed reforms that he says would bring public employee compensation in line with that for private workers.

A personnel bill, which will receive a hearing Thursday night, would extend the workweek for more than 100 county employees from 35 to 40 hours and remove automatic pay raises for passing time-served milestones, among other changes.

In addition, the Gary administration has reached an impasse with several employee unions, which would not receive pay raises for the third consecutive year. Mr. Gary is proposing changes to the salary schedule, a pension system for new police officers that would require more years of work for retirement benefits and contract stipulations to make it easier to privatize public services.

The proposal to remove automatic pay increases after 11 and 16 years of police service would cost the Whitlow family a 10 percent raise or $6,000 a year starting in 1998.

"The chickens are coming home to roost," said E. Hilton Wade, Anne Arundel's personnel director, whose father-in-law once implored him to join the public-sector for the benefits. "All around us is change."

Early retirement

Earlier this year, Baltimore County offered early retirement to some of its 7,000 employees, expecting 150 takers that would shave $5 million a year from the payroll.

The county got almost twice that number.

"They're scared," said Edward M. Pedrick Jr., president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 921.

"Working for local governments is no longer a secure job. What the employees are doing is taking health benefits and working wherever they can."

Howard County plans to offer 200 employees, or 11 percent of the work force, a chance for early retirement. In addition, county personnel officials have frozen 60 vacant positions that likely never will be filled. And the administration is proposing personnel code changes that would tie raises to performance rather than longevity.

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