Unions, O'Malley at odds over pay

Disparity in raises irks many workers

September 06, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is telling city workers not to expect much of a pay raise this year because of budget woes, a message that is angering union leaders who accuse the mayor of failing to practice what he preaches.

And O'Malley recently sent a letter to thousands of city workers outside the Police Department, telling them the administration will expect them to pay a larger share of their health benefits costs.

The correspondence comes in a year when City Council members received an $11,000-a-year pay raise, Baltimore police officers gained up to 33 percent over three years, and O'Malley raised the salary cap for his four top deputies from $108,000 to $140,000 a year.

The council in December also voted - and O'Malley approved - an increase in the mayor's annual salary from $95,000 to $125,000 to bring it in line with cities of similar size.

"Our members are going ballistic," said Stephan G. Fugate, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, which is in court contesting its contract with the city. "Let's not cry poor mouth and then not make it inclusive."

O'Malley defended his stance, saying that substantial pay raises for 13,000 city workers still negotiating contracts would have a much larger impact on the $1.8 billion budget than the less than $500,000 it cost the city to raise salaries for 19 council members and four administrators.

O'Malley made no secret of his desire to boost police pay in his first year, a move that will cost city taxpayers $30 million over the next three years, he said.

"I'm practicing exactly what I preached," O'Malley said. "I made no bones about it. When I ran into city employees on the campaign I said that I couldn't afford to give substantial raises in the first year."

Three of the city's major unions are working under extended contracts after failing to reach new agreements with the city by the June 30 deadline.

One of the city's largest unions, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, recently rejected the city's offer for a 2 percent annual raise, according to a source familiar with the talks.

Earlier this year, before the police contract was approved, the city offered 2 percent to its 1,800 firefighters, who then won a 3 percent increase in arbitration. The city appealed the arbitrator's decision to the Court of Special Appeals, opposing a clause in the contracts that requires the same percentage of pay increases for firefighters as for police officers.

City union leaders met yesterday to discuss how to respond to the O'Malley letter on health benefits, which was dated Aug. 21. They called the correspondence the latest in an increasingly "anti-labor" stance from the administration.

"We feel slighted, we feel hurt," said Kelis R. Stewart, chief shop steward and labor representative for AFSCME Local 44, which represents 4,800 city workers. "The council got a healthy raise, and they're part-time employees, and they want to cut our benefits?"

The exchange is the latest indication of rising tensions between the mayor and city unions. The jousting began earlier this summer when the mayor released a city government study by the Greater Baltimore Committee and President's Roundtable.

O'Malley hailed the study as an effort to make city government more efficient, but union leaders challenged the recommendations - which include closing neighborhood service centers and fire stations - as a step toward the city eventually reducing the work force and contracting with private companies to handle city services.

Baltimore budget leaders have warned of an impending fiscal crisis because city spending is outpacing revenues. Over the next three years, the city will be forced to come up with $59 million to balance its budgets.

A big chunk of the shortfall is attributable to the doubling of prescription drug costs for city workers and retirees to $60 million over the past five years. A study by the nonprofit Baltimore Economy and Efficiency Foundation Inc. contended that city health benefits are more generous than those provided by other area employers. The group recommended that the city require workers to pick up a larger share of health benefit costs.

As part of the pay raise accepted last month, the city's 3,200 police officers agreed to pay 10 percent of their health care costs, which in the past were fully provided by the city.

Other city union leaders accused O'Malley and city administrators yesterday of a lack of foresight by giving raises to top city leaders while knowing that the administration would ask the city's rank-and-file workers - who earn an average of $22,000 a year - to sacrifice.

"This is an administration that is operating without adult supervision," Fugate said. "I go to the Board of Estimates every week, and it seems that a week doesn't go by when there are not new employees hired."

O'Malley contends that the salary restructuring in his office will make the city more efficient, while the raises to police will attract experienced officers. If the city can reduce crime, increase efficiency and eventually raise tax revenues, city workers will share in the success, O'Malley said.

"I feel badly," he said. "I wish there was something more I could do. In a few years time, I hope to be able to come back" with better raises.

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