Budget tight on pay raises

Tentative contracts don't have increases for cost of living

`It is very difficult'

April 07, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Sharp tax revenue declines will mean no cost-of-living pay raises for Howard County employees in the fiscal year beginning July 1, based on three tentative contract agreements reached last week.

Police, fire and 911 emergency telephone workers have tentatively agreed to contracts with the administration of County Executive James N. Robey, as county teachers have with the school board, said Robert S. Lazarewicz, the county's chief labor negotiator.

County workers due longevity "step" pay raises will get them, Lazarewicz said, and anyone not eligible for that will get a minimum, one-time $500 payment.

County teachers are to consider a similar deal, starting Tuesday, when teachers get the details of their agreement from Howard County Education Association leaders.

"This was the year we didn't have the money to do what we would have liked to have done. It was very challenging," Robey said, adding that he does not want to raise taxes in a year when state income taxes are due to drop and when many people might be feeling the recession's effect.

"Whatever increases we give will be consistent with our ability to pay for those within existing revenues. It is very difficult," Robey added.

James F. Fitzgerald, president of the police union, predicted the agreement would be approved by rank-and-file officers, though he acknowledged it could be a close vote.

"Considering all things, I think this is a reasonable contract," he said, noting that the county will pay any increased health care costs. "I think it will pass."

If approved by union membership votes, the deals would cost the county an extra $900,000 for its direct employees, though the teachers' three-year contract would cost up to $10 million more just for next year, Lazarewicz said.

County school employees negotiate with the elected school board, not the county administration.

Tentative agreements have yet to be reached with county corrections officers and blue-collar workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Union officials from those groups were not available for comment.

Robey, a former career county police officer and police chief, caught a break from the firefighters, who did not ask for a percentage increase, in order to help him in this election year.

Separate tax

The county Department of Fire and Rescue Services budget is funded from a separate property tax that may produce enough for a pay increase next year, union President Mike Rund said.

"It's [the pay situation] not real great, but we know the budget is what it is," Rund said, referring to a projected $18 million shortfall this year.

"We're supportive of him. He's been honest with us," Rund said about Robey. The executive has improved police and firefighters' pensions, cut the firefighters' work week from 52 to 48 hours and given pay increases when money was available.

Rund said he did not want to demand a pay raise for firefighters, knowing it is not available for other employees.

"We didn't want to put him in that position," Rund said, figuring that if Robey is re-elected and the economy improves, he will take care of county workers. Robey seemed grateful, calling Rund's support "pretty unique."

Over the past two years, general county employees got a combined 7.4 percent pay increase. Police got 11 percent and teachers got 12 percent.

Those increases were an attempt, Robey has said, to boost Howard County's ability to hire quality workers compared with other counties - a thrust now threatened with stagnation.

Teachers in Montgomery County are due another 5 percent pay increase, for example.

Howard's police officers may be less forgiving than the firefighters, however, despite the tentative agreement. Grumbling has been common among officers, though none would agree to be identified.

The police say they are angry that while they get no percentage pay raise, the next county executive will get $26,500 more.

The County Council approved a salary of $125,000 for the next county executive, who will take office in December. The council's concern was that the executive's pay, now $98,500, has also lagged.

Awkward timing

Robey said, "The timing for this [executive pay raise] is very awkward. It feels very funny," he said, noting that elected officials' pay is considered only once every four years.

After four years as executive, Robey is still making less than he did in 1997 as county police chief. Dozens of high-ranking county officials make more than he does, topped by school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, who makes $191,000 a year.

Communications union officials were not available for comment.

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