Police union rejects offer with 15% average raise

With talks at impasse, arbitration process may take two months

May 27, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

Double-digit-percentage raises are nearly unheard of for area police officers, but a seller's market for their services has prompted Howard County's police union to reject an average first-year increase of 15 percent.

Both sides said yesterday that negotiations are at an impasse and asked for an arbitrator.

The breakdown comes as the department is looking to recruit 13 officers from other jurisdictions. But without an approved higher pay scale, Police Department officials have postponed advertising for the positions and put off their plans to put nine officers in area high schools.

Police departments throughout the region are competing fiercely for officers, and some agencies are sharply raising salaries, putting Howard County at a disadvantage. Police union officials say the county's three-year contract offer would not guarantee the department's continuing competitiveness.

Both sides had reached a tentative agreement in April, but ultimately could not agree on what officers should receive in the second and third years of the contract.

The county offered a 3 percent raise in the second year or a cost-of-living increase, whichever was higher. If that were not enough to keep the salaries competitive with other jurisdictions, officials would reopen negotiations on salaries. The same agreement would apply in the third year, for which the county offered a 4 percent increase.

Union members asked for a 5 percent raise both years, saying any- thing less will put them in the same position they are in today -- unable to compete with neighboring jurisdictions.

"You can't attract good people that way," said Cpl. John Paparazzo, president of the Howard County Police Officers Association, which represents the 250 officers in the department not considered supervisors. "We need to compensate the officers who come here and stay here."

Numbers matter

Paparazzo said the percentage difference between the county's offer and the union's request -- which would cost the county an additional $400,000 over two years -- seems small until the effect starts compounding.

"It makes a cumulative difference," he said. "If it's not that much, [the county] ought to just give it to us."

County officials say they have given the officers nearly everything they asked for, and that the deal will keep the county third among the seven neighboring departments.

"They admit to me at the table this is a good package," said Cecil E. Bray, Howard County's deputy chief administrative officer. "They just want more."

For the last decade, officers have received cost-of-living increases. But a growing demand for police officers regionally prompted nearby jurisdictions to boost their starting salaries. In March, Baltimore County and state police increased their starting salary to more than $30,000. Anne Arundel increased its starting pay by 3 percent, putting it at slightly more than $28,000.

Those changes left Howard County's starting salary of $27,082 below six area jurisdictions'. By April the county and the union agreed to a restructured pay scale. The proposed new starting salary on that scale was $30,156. Each step on the new scale would increase 2.5 percent, and the years needed to reach the salary ceiling would be reduced from 19 to 12. Those changes meant officers would have seen a 12 percent to 17 percent raise in the first year, costing the county about $1 million.

Yesterday, the County Council approved the funding for the raise, but County Executive James N. Robey said officers will not see the increase until a new contract is signed. Officials plan to extend the old contract, which expires June 30.

"I'm disappointed," said Robey, the previous county police chief. "I thought the police would be the easiest contract this year."

Solution may be slow

Now, both sides will select an arbitrator to hear each side and render an opinion. Robey can accept it, reject it or modify the arbitrator's recommendation. The entire process will last about two months, Bray said.

In the meantime, the Police Department -- which is seeking officers from other jurisdictions -- must continue to advertise jobs using the old scale.

Officials had planned to hire more officers to help staff nine high schools. The county is receiving $1.125 million in federal funds in the wake of the shootings in Littleton, Colo.

"We've put that on hold," said Maj. Mark Paterni of the department's administration. "Those salaries are not very competitive."

Those officers would have started in August in the schools. Paterni said the department is deciding when to begin advertising for those positions.

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 5/27/99

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