Firefighters, county inch closer to pay agreement

After viewing report, sides hint deal near

May 18, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

In the stalled contract negotiations between Anne Arundel County firefighters and county officials, the facts are in. And at least initially, they were not disputed.

The independent fact-finding report released yesterday pleased both sides, who said it's possible they'll reach an agreement before the impasse hearing scheduled for Monday.

The report recommends that officials and the union settle on a three-year-contract that includes improved pension benefits and a 15 percent pay raise overall for the county's 500 firefighters and paramedics.

Jim Edwards, president of the professional firefighters local 1563, said the arbitrator's findings were "favorable."

"We still don't catch up with police," he said. "But this would at least make us comparable." County police will receive 17 percent pay raises and more over the next three years.

The impasse hearing, tentatively scheduled for 1 p.m., would leave resolving the dispute up to County Council members.

The arbitrator, Richard I. Bloch, wrote: "By almost any standard, Anne Arundel County is among the lowest in firefighter compensation among the surrounding jurisdictions. In terms of total compensation, firefighters in this county lag behind the average by some 20 percent or more."

The arbitrator recommended that the county, which has a surplus budget, commit to giving firefighters and paramedics 5 percent raises each of the next three years, although he said a one-year deal would be acceptable.

The report also suggests the contract include retirement eligibility after 20 years of service, regardless of age, and a pension enhancement program.

A spokesman for County Executive Janet S. Owens said she "considers the county's offer and the arbitrator's findings' differences minimal."

Owens "strongly favors a multiyear contract, because the benefits flow to the firefighters," said her spokesman Andrew Carpenter.

"It helps them achieve a competitive position in the regional marketplace, and it creates budget and personnel stability for the county," he said.

County personnel director Randall Schultz said he would send the union's attorney a memo today, proposing an immediate resolution.

The county had offered the union a one-year contract that included a 5 percent pay raise and was amenable to improved retirement benefits and longevity pay, according to the Washington-based arbitrator's report.

Longevity raises -- key in the union's proposal -- are recommended in the fact-finding report as part of a one-year-contract but not specifically in a three-year deal.

Until attorneys for both sides determine how to interpret the fact-finding conclusions -- which also address pay scale compression -- it remains unclear how close they are to reaching an agreement.

"It really depends on how they interpret these numbers," Edwards said.

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