Contract negotiations with unions representing 1,700 Baltimore firefighters went to arbitration yesterday after the two sides failed to reach an early agreement.
The firefighters' contract expires June 30. The early snag threatens to complicate scheduled contract talks with other city unions representing 16,000 municipal workers as Mayor Martin O'Malley embarks on crafting his first city budget. Baltimore faces a projected deficit of $153 million over the next three years.
"The challenge that is created this year is that they [negotiations] come in at a time when we not only face a budget deficit but we're dealing with a state budget that is far less helpful than in years past," O'Malley said.
Union leaders accused city negotiators of trying to make up the impending budget shortfall on the backs of its members by asking them to pay more for health care and prescription drugs.
The Baltimore Fire Officers Association and the Baltimore Firefighters Association, which also represent emergency medical service workers, filed an unfair labor practice claim against the city, saying it failed to provide proof that the city's share of health care spending was rising.
The administration wants workers to pay an average of $1,500 more in health care costs annually and would double their current co-payment for name-brand prescriptions from $5 to $10, according to union leaders. The city is offering a 2 percent raise to the firefighters, who are seeking 3 percent.
Fire Officers Association President Stephen G. Fugate called the city's requests "draconian."
"In public employment, the trade-off has always been good health benefits," Fugate said.
City prescription medicine costs will rise above $60 million next year, more than double what it was in 1995. While workers' share of health care costs have risen in private companies, the city pays 94 percent of its employees costs, according to a 1998 Calvert Institute for Public Policy Research study.
"The city has been historically generous with prescription co-pay costs, even compared to the private sector," said the Baltimore Efficiency and Economy Foundation Inc. President George Nilson, who served on O'Malley's finance transition committee.
Recent salary increases totaling $301,000 annually for the mayor, City Council and comptroller add to the talks' ill will; potential salaries for O'Malley's top aides also rose from a maximum of $108,700 to $140,000. The mayor also has said he hopes to increase city police salaries to halt the exodus to officers to surrounding counties.
Fire union leaders with 25 years experience paint talks as bleak.
"I've never seen it worse," Fugate said.