Police contract talks resume County, FOP upbeat about negotiations

March 07, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Contract talks began yesterday between the county and its police union, with both sides optimistic they will avoid the ugliness that caused a breakdown in last year's negotiations.

Dennis Howell, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 70, said he has "forged a new relationship with [County Executive] John Gary" that he hopes will lead to higher wages for his 456 members.

Howell said it is possible the two sides could reach agreement by April 1.

Gary spokeswoman Lisa Ritter said the two men have been meeting privately for about two months, developing "a very strong relationship."

"The old way of doing business wasn't going to work anymore," she said.

Anne Arundel police at the top of their pay scale earn 3 percent less than the median salary of Baltimore metropolitan area officers, according to the 1995 Local Government Salary Survey. Those wages will prevent the department from retaining good officers, union leaders have warned.

And while Gary has boasted of hiring 41 officers, Howell said the department is still 33 positions short of a full staff, which translates into much overtime.

"You can't get a day off," he said. "Not a day goes by that you don't hear on the radio, 'Who wants to work four hours here or four hours there?' " Howell said.

County officials must abide by a voter-imposed tax cap that limits the increase in local property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation each year, whichever is less. And they also face negotiations this year with the teachers and firefighters. (A 1 percent pay raise for all county employees would cost about $5.5 million, or 4 cents added to the property tax rate.)

"Constituents want good, solid police services," said Ritter. "But constituents also want the line held on taxes."

Howell acknowledges that the tax cap "puts a financial strain" on what the county can do but points out that his membership has been facing hardship, too.

Rank-and-file officers, who have been without a raise for almost three years, took a battering last May, when the County Council unilaterally set a one-year contract that eliminated guaranteed cost-of-living increases and established a second pension plan for new employees that requires longer service before they qualify for retirement benefits.

During negotiations, the FOP waged war against Gary on Baltimore radio with a 60-second "civil defense message" that warned of a decreasing police force and rising crime rate. Gary blasted back, calling the commercials a "union scare tactic" that reflected badly on the officers' work.

"The tone is definitely going to be different this year," Howell said. "People got between us. He didn't have the benefit of hearing things from me, and I didn't have the benefit of hearing things directly from him. I didn't have the benefit of his thinking."

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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