Unions vexed by Smith's budget

Balto. County police, teachers decry absence of cost-of-living increases

April 19, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Unlike predecessors who took office when money was tight, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is getting no honeymoon from the county's two largest unions, which are upset that he did not include cost-of-living increases in his proposed $1.2 billion budget for the coming fiscal year.

Nine months after endorsing him in the executive's race, the police and teacher unions have issued harsh criticisms of Smith's budget, saying the executive appears to have forgotten his commitments to public safety and education.

Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said Smith's vows to work collaboratively with unions and to support public education seem like "empty promises."

"For the second year in a row, Baltimore County government has decided to balance its budget on the backs of employees," said Beytin.

"This budget proposal does little to attract and retain the best, brightest and most committed teachers. It does virtually nothing to stem the tide of the thousand-plus teachers leaving our classrooms every year."

And Cole B. Weston, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, with more than 2,500 members, said he was upset that the executive didn't provide even a small raise for county employees, who have worked with the administration to limit health-care cost increases.

"I think that when you see the labor organizations working so hard in that area that you could have looked at the entire budget, which as they acknowledged came in well under the spending affordability cap, that there could have been some financial regard to our county employees," Weston said.

A smaller labor group, the Baltimore County Federation of Public Health Nurses, also expressed anger that raises weren't included in the budget. Starting public health nurses are paid at least $5,000 less than their counterparts in the private sector, making it almost impossible to recruit and train workers, said federation President Ann Lowekamp.

"We are very frustrated," Lowekamp said. "The administration doesn't seem to recognize the value we bring to them."

Each year the county establishes spending affordability guidelines to make sure county spending doesn't grow faster than the income of county residents. This year's budget came in $16 million under the spending affordability limit. A 1 percent cost of living increase for county employees would have cost $10.6 million.

After presenting his budget, Smith said he regretted that the county didn't have enough money to provide a pay raise without raising taxes.

"Certainly I had pressure to do that - the police wanted additional, the teachers wanted additional, all employee groups wanted additional resources," Smith said. "How can I consider that when the state added 5 cents to the property tax and we've got this economy?"

"People are losing their jobs, getting laid off," Smith added. "Other jurisdictions are taking layoffs, moving people around to keep them employed. I think we had a very prudent, straightforward and thoughtful approach to this budget."

In preparing his budget, Smith had to contend with three important financial realities: County revenues are stagnant, state aid to municipalities is uncertain, and health-care costs are rising rapidly.

Neither of the last two executives, Republican Roger B. Hayden and Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, gave cost-of-living increases to county employees in their first years in office, but both escaped much criticism from labor groups.

The difference, Beytin said, is that previous executives were forthcoming about their budget plans and bargained in good faith.

Beytin, whose union has nearly 6,000 members, said the teachers negotiated a deal with the Board of Education to make concessions on health care in exchange for a 3 percent cost-of-living increase. The Smith administration took the health-care savings but didn't give the raise, he said.

Furthermore, Beytin said Smith didn't inform him of what was in the budget ahead of time. Beytin said he didn't even know about Smith's plan to raise first-year teaching salaries until he heard it in the executive's budget presentation to the council.

"The communications have not been good," Beytin said. "Even when I think I am communicating with people who speak with him and work with him, evidently I'm not. I'm not sure who's in control there. I'm not sure how the decisions are being made."

Not all of the unions expressed dissatisfaction.

Leaders from the local chapters of the firefighters union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said they understood the constraints Smith worked under and aren't upset about the budget.

Michael Day, president of the firefighters local, said his membership wasn't expecting a raise, but he was glad to see money in the budget for diesel fuel emissions abatement in fire stations, an important health issue for firefighters.

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