The Howard County firefighters union and county negotiators yesterday were nearing a settlement that could resolve the nastiest labor dispute in the county's history.
Entering a negotiating session yesterday afternoon, union President Jeff Loomis and administration negotiator Cecil Bray said a deal was emerging based on a 25-year retirement package offered by County Council Republicans in April.
The council's Republican majority rejected an earlier deal that would have given the police and firefighter unions retirement benefits after 20 years in exchange for scheduling changes and other concessions estimated to be worth more than $2 million a year to the county.
At that time, however, Republicans offered an alternative that would have kept retirement at 25 years but improved the benefits to retirees.
If this latest deal is approved, it would mean that firefighters retiring after 25 years would receive 57 1/2 percent of their final salaries annually for the rest of their lives. The percentage would increase with each additional year of service, rising to a maximum of 65 percent after 30 years.
That package compares with a current retirement plan that pays 50 percent after 25 years and 60 percent after 30 years.
The deal, if approved at the negotiating table, would need the approval of County Executive Charles I. Ecker, the union membership and the County Council.
The deal could end months of hard feelings that have prompted angry outbursts by council members and union officials. Two weeks ago, police union President John Paparazzo called negotiations on the police contract talks dead.
But if the firefighters settle, it could push the police union closer to a deal since the police officers' contract has a clause that entitles them to any benefit given to the firefighters union.
That means county police could get the improved retirement package negotiated by the firefighters -- without returning to the negotiating table. They likely still would have to make some concessions to compensate the county for the higher cost of the new plan.
Paparazzo would not rule out the possibility that the police union would allow a dramatic scheduling change -- from 9 1/2 -hour shifts to 12-hour shifts -- to get the better retirement package.
The scheduling change has long been sought by Police Chief James N. Robey, who says it would save hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of overlap time between shifts.
In other County Council developments:
The administration is proposing a bill that would give county officials power to fine businesses and residents that violate noise standards set by the state.
County police handle about 1,200 noise complaints each year. Most are settled with a warning, but police want the power to issue tickets to violators. Penalties would include fines of up to $100 and up to 30 days in jail.
The bill is scheduled for a public hearing before the County Council on June 16.
Also scheduled for a hearing that night is a bill by Councilman C. Vernon Gray requiring fiscal-impact studies of mixed-use developments, the Columbia-style projects planned for some of Howard's last big open areas -- primarily in North Laurel and Fulton.
Fiscal-impact studies would attempt to measure a project's effect on the county budget -- the taxes it would generate vs. the services it would use.
Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, says such information is crucial in deciding how much residential and business development to allow in a mixed-use area. Typically, homes cost the county more in services than they generate in taxes. The opposite is true for most businesses.
Last year, Gray proposed a similar bill -- one that would have required developers to do the fiscal-impact studies -- but he withdrew it because of lack of support on the council. His new bill would require that the Department of Planning and Zoning do the studies.
The council also is considering a bill that would make changes in the zoning law apply to all properties -- even if developers have begun seeking the approvals needed for construction.
Only properties under construction would be exempt.
County officials had long assumed that zoning rule changes applied to all properties. But recent court decisions have cast doubt on that.
Now county officials are wondering if the Rouse Co. has to follow a new law governing the timing of residential and business development at its 525-acre mixed-use project planned for Scaggsville.
The Rouse Co. had submitted the project for approval when the council passed that law several months ago.
In a work session on the bill Tuesday night, Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr. told the council that it should not relinquish the power to shape zoning laws for a project just because the developer has started seeking county approval.
But land-use attorney Thomas Meachum, saying he was representing himself, has argued that it can be unfair to change the rules once a developer has sought approval from the Zoning Board -- a process that takes months or even years in cases that are appealed to court.
Pub Date: 5/29/97