Stalled negotiations prompt firefighters to lobby council

Union seeks contract similar to one reached with police

March 29, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

With a torrent of e-mails, faxes and phone calls, the Anne Arundel County firefighters' union is lobbying the County Council to help jump-start stalled contract talks between the union and county negotiators.

The union plans to rally before Monday's council meeting and then tell council members why the nearly 500 firefighters deserve a deal comparable to one that county police officers just received. The final decision rests with County Executive Janet S. Owens.

"We are hoping the council can convince the executive to have her personnel come back to the bargaining table and bargain in good faith with a serious offer," said Jim Edwards, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters Local 1563.

The contract expires June 30.

Among the firefighters who appealed to council members yesterday was Mark Muckelbauer, husband of council member Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican. In a letter to the council, he said that on his salary, it was becoming increasingly difficult for him and his wife "to fulfill our basic survival and security needs."

Vitale, an attorney who makes $28,660 a year for her part-time council duties, said she knew her husband planned to write the letter.

To dispel suspicions of a conflict of interest, she said, she has avoided involvement in the contract issue. She has directed her legislative aide to turn away calls from union representatives and to delete e-mails on the subject. "I want to stay as far away from it as possible," Vitale said, describing her attitude as, "When you hear `fire,' run."

"She's out of it, and I'm a firefighter fighting for a very good contract," Muckelbauer said.

Muckelbauer, a 15-year veteran of the department, said that if he had spent the same amount of time working in a nearby county, his salary would be about $56,000 instead of the $40,000 he makes now.

The new police contract includes a 17 percent raise over three years; the county has offered firefighters a 13 percent pay increase, also over three years. Edwards said the police pact includes enhancements to the pension plan and an increase in starting pay -- elements missing from the county's offer to firefighters.

Recruitment of firefighters and paramedics is suffering, Edwards said, because the starting pay of $27,000 is about $5,000 lower than in neighboring counties. Five firefighters have left the staff, he said, and three more are on their way out.

Union officials rejected the county's offer Friday. Randall J. Schultz, head of the county personnel office, has declined to comment on negotiations, but he said retention problems have been greater among police than firefighters.

Some council members seem sympathetic to the firefighters' concerns.

"It appears we are facing the same recruitment and retention issue with firefighters as we are with police officers," said Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk, an Annapolis Democrat. "And it would seem we need to address this issue in the same manner for both [groups of employees]."

In addition to the firefighters' union, four other union locals are at an impasse with the county on contract negotiations, Schultz said. Deputy sheriffs, who are represented by the Teamsters Union, are still talking.

Yesterday, Samorajczyk received about 35 e-mails, six faxed letters and six voice-mail messages regarding the firefighters' contract. That Muckelbauer's appeal was part of the pile does not concern her.

"I don't think the fact [Vitale] is a council person should impact his rights," she said.

Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, a Democrat from Linthicum, had a similar reaction.

"Are his concerns about his career as a firefighter supposed to stop because his wife becomes a county councilwoman?" Beidle said.

"One e-mail from one firefighter isn't the only thing involved in this," she said.

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