Contract details needed

Arundel: Let the public in on tentative settlement between the county and firefighters union.

May 23, 2000

THE COUNTY has reached a tentative settlement with its firefighters. The 470-member union is scheduled to vote on the pact next week. This is a positive development in a bargaining process.

Unfortunately, details of the tentative agreement are being kept secret. If the contract is ratified, taxpayers will have to pay firefighters and paramedics more over the next three years. The question is how much more. The public deserves to know what the county is getting them into.

Previously, County Executive Janet S. Owens had offered 13 percent raises over three years plus remarkable improvements in pension benefits. Firefighters sought 17 percent increases, arguing that they are paid less than their counterparts elsewhere. They also wanted pay raises as large as the generous hikes Ms. Owens gave police officers earlier this bargaining season.

Firefighters and paramedics are enormously important to citizens. Nobody will argue that. But the county's resources are stretched thin.

The county's budget seems healthy, with a projected $40 million to $50 million surplus this year. But Anne Arundel's unmet needs are visible to every resident who uses a library that closes at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays because the county can't afford to do better. Its needs are evident to students and teachers in schools that leak on rainy days or fill with suffocating air when it's hot.

The county's $825.5 million operating budget is record-breaking, but its liabilities are growing.

County officials negotiate on the public's behalf, but taxpayers should be kept posted on how much of their money will go toward fire protection and rescue services over the next three years. There is no reason to conceal the numbers.

Faced with many needs, Ms. Owens must be prudent with salaries. Right now, we can't tell if that is happening in the agreement with firefighters because the executive and the union are keeping the public in the dark.

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