Chief asks fired officers to come back

16 were laid off in July in Owens' bid to cut $1 million from budget

`A very nice step forward'

Cutbacks hit morale hard

surge of resignations seen

Anne Arundel

November 07, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Four months ago, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and her police chief laid off 16 police officers in a last-minute attempt to trim the budget.

Now they want them back.

After a recent surge of resignations within the department - where the layoffs hit morale hard - Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan said yesterday that he needs the officers. And the resignations freed up enough money to go after them.

"This is a very nice step forward," he said. "It's got to be a positive for morale."

Owens was the only county executive this year to lay off employees in the face of fiscal problems facing communities around the state. Shanahan said the decision to rehire was not a change of direction - the county always intended to do this - but he never expected it to happen so quickly.

The departed officers also were surprised.

"They laid us off like we were a bunch of 16-year-olds working a summer job," said fired officer David Stokes, 25, who had joined the Annapolis Police Department. "They gave us two weeks' notice. ... They shouldn't just expect us to say, `OK, I want my job back.'"

Stokes said he will consider the offer to return.

Shanahan started calling the officers Wednesday night with job offers. Fourteen of the 16 have landed jobs elsewhere, police union officials said.

The chief says he is not sure how many will accept his offer; six had as of late yesterday. Three more were probable returns and two had refused, police officials said. Officials were trying to reach the others.

The police dismissals, effective July 7, were an attempt to save $1 million. The new officers had recently completed field training. In all, their training cost more than $800,000.

Owens said yesterday that she is "thrilled" she could rehire the officers.

If all return, the layoffs will have saved about $400,000 in salary and related costs over the past four months, Shanahan said. In addition, the department has generated additional savings because 21 officers have left over the same period. That's more than double the typical rate of two per month.

Union leaders said it's a cycle: The firings helped spark the resignations, creating the openings and freeing up the money for the fired officers to return.

"When you lay off 16 police officers, and that same year attempt to pass legislation to freeze every officer's pay, and you attempt to pass legislation that raises what every officer pays in health care ... people aren't seeing a real bright light at the end of this tunnel," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police. "Hopefully this is a sign of things to come."

Shanahan said his department has 60 vacancies out of 667 sworn positions. Factor in officers away in the military, with injuries or out for other reasons, and the department is 100 officers short, Atkinson said.

The diminished staffing has reduced some services. For example, Atkinson said, officers sometimes tell residents to call the Maryland State Police for drug complaints.

And the cutback hit morale.

"It's unusual for police to be laid off so, yes, it did affect morale," Shanahan said. "It was low."

The layoffs were the last step in a back and forth between Owens and the County Council, whose members were being heavily lobbied by employee unions.

Owens proposed a budget without any pay increases for police and most other county employees. The council freed up money through cuts, but Owens refused to put the money toward raises. The council passed the budget anyway, but then it voted down wage-freeze legislation needed to make the budget work.

In response, Owens laid off 16 police officers and two other employees. (County officials said yesterday that the two other layoffs actually resulted in transfers.)

The two council members who blocked the pay-freeze legislation, and whom Owens blamed for the layoffs, said yesterday that they were happy with Owens' decision to rehire.

"I'm pleased for the citizens," Councilman Pamela G. Beidle said. Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk agreed.

But the decision also renewed debate over whether the officers should have been fired in the first place.

"We needed the money within the Police Department," Owens said yesterday.

Atkinson said he told county officials at the time that 100 officers were eligible for retirement and likely to leave. The county could have waited to make layoffs instead of basing them on projections.

Beidle agreed. "I would say it's obvious the layoffs should not have occurred," she said.

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