Unions watch ballot questions on arbitration

Mediators would decide disputes with fire, police

Arundel, Balto. counties vote

Executives say change would hinder budgeting

October 20, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

In two elections sure to be watched around Maryland, voters in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties will decide whether independent arbitrators should be used to settle contract disputes between the counties and police and firefighter unions.

Third-party arbitrators are often called in to help settle such disputes, but their recommendations are regarded as advisory opinions -- not rulings.

However, if voters in the two counties approve the referendum questions on the November ballot, arbitrators would be given the authority to settle disagreements on contracts covering salaries and benefits for police officers, firefighters and paramedics.

Baltimore and Anne Arundel would join Montgomery and Prince George's as the only counties in Maryland that use binding arbitration.

The votes are expected to be closely watched by union leaders around the state.

"If we're successful here and voters support it in Anne Arundel County, I'm sure other unions will consider asking for it," said Cole Weston, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4.

"We're looking for a fair, equitable process," Weston said. "Binding arbitration can be asked for by either side. It encourages both parties to work toward a resolution."

Arbitrators can bring a quicker end to sometimes-contentious contract negotiations -- a benefit for unions representing public safety employees, who are forbidden by state law from striking.

For county administrators, third-party arbitrators are not as appealing because they limit county executives' authority to determine how much should be spent on employee salaries and benefits. Arbitrators do, however, consider county finances in making their rulings.

Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger has opposed binding arbitration. "He has said it takes away his ability to be accountable for the budget and to voters," said his spokeswoman, Elise Armacost.

However, she said, the administration is taking no position on the referendum.

In Anne Arundel County, council members agreed to make binding arbitration a referendum item, despite opposition from County Executive Janet S. Owens. Some in her administration argued that the charter amendment could hurt the local budget process, which is already restricted by a voter-imposed tax cap that limits the government's ability to raise revenue.

Although independent arbitrators' rulings don't always favor unions, firefighters and police say that binding arbitration would benefit public safety.

"Because of the work we do, we want our members to keep their minds on their job, not worry about contract negotiation. ... This will resolve contract issues much more quickly," said Michael K. Day Sr., president of the Baltimore County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics.

Contract talks in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have stalled in recent years. In Arundel, county officials ignored a neutral arbitrator's recommendation during the last round of negotiations with firefighters. The two sides came to an agreement in June 2000.

It took about 1 1/2 years for Baltimore County officials and the FOP to resolve disputes over police pensions. That contract was ratified in April 2001.

"It was a difficult time for a lot of people," Weston said. "Drawn-out negotiations can cause a lot of disruptions in the work force. Officers don't know whether they can afford to continue working here."

Union officials say contract uncertainty makes it difficult for retired and working officers to budget for their families. Labor contracts for police, firefighters and paramedics in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties expire next summer.

Union leaders in Baltimore County gathered more than the 10,000 signatures needed to put the question on the November ballot. Since then, the unions have launched an all-out campaign to win support for the measure, spending $100,000 on glossy countywide mailings, and will likely broadcast a radio advertisement before Election Day. The unions have also hired a national campaign adviser.

One reason the unions decided to petition for the referendum question was so that the rank-and-file could discuss the issue with voters when they collected signatures, Weston said.

The binding arbitration issue will appear as Question C on the Baltimore County ballot, and Questions D and E in Anne Arundel County.

Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.

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