As Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens drives by the police union hall in Crownsville on her way to work this week, she'll see her office phone number on a sign asking the public to support police in their contract negotiations with the county.
But union officials said that even before they erected the "Help Us Help You" sign, which is on Owens' route to work, they felt sure she and other county officials had gotten their message about needing a significant pay raise.
"I'm actually optimistic about the negotiations," Fraternal Order of Police president Paul Ingley said Friday about talks with Owens' administration. "She's promised to take care of the police and fire departments this year. And so far, she's kept her promises."
County Personnel Officer Randy Schultz confirmed that contracts with public safety employees were a priority this year -- "especially considering the fact that Baltimore and Howard counties gave their police significant pay increases," he said.
Anne Arundel officers with six years of experience earn roughly $4,000 less than their counterparts in Howard County and about $8,000 less than those in Prince George's County.
Starting pay for Anne Arundel sergeants is $39,658. In Howard County, for example, it's $49,419, 25 percent more. At the top of the pay scale, the difference is 18 percent.
Closing the gap will cost Anne Arundel about $202,000 for each 1 percent pay increase, county officials said. That could mean the county might have to spend several million dollars in the settlement with police, Schultz said.
Neither side would say what the county was offering or what figure would be an acceptable compromise.
The County Sergeants Association, another police bargaining unit in contract negotiations, has a Wednesday deadline. But Sgt. Bret Ballam, president of the association, said it was highly unlikely a settlement would be reached by then.
"We are talking," Ballam said. "And the county seems sincere about wanting to help us. I think it was an eye-opener for them to see the figures."
The deadline for the FOP contract is March 15. Both sides have said they are optimistic about having a resolution by then.
Although negotiations began in October, FOP talks had been postponed until local police voted on which organization would represent them. The FOP won its bid to remain the bargaining agent -- a position that the Teamsters and the International Union of Police Associations had been challenging.
To retain their position, local FOP officials formed an alliance with IUPA that included contracting with IUPA to assist with the contract talks.
Union officials say the six-month, $7,379 deal with the IUPA provides help with media relations and contract negotiations.
If talks reach an impasse, the FOP and the County Sergeants Association have agreed to support each other during protests, Ingley said.
But, he said, "I don't think there's going to be a need for that to happen."
In the past month, FOP and county officials have met twice to discuss the contract, Ingley said.
Although retirement and other benefits will be discussed, both sides have said salary is the main issue, in part because it is a key in retaining and recruiting officers.
In the past 14 months, 36 sergeants have resigned or retired for better pay elsewhere, Ballam said. "We've lost our competitive edge We were once able to recruit all over the state and the country," he said.
The county is also negotiating labor agreements with five other collective bargaining units representing deputy sheriffs, firefighters, detention officers, clerical staff, and drivers and equipment operators.