Arbitration deal draws union fear in Balto. Co.

911 operators, jail officers worry police-fire rule may hurt their bid for raises

January 25, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

A little more than a year after Baltimore County voters overwhelmingly approved binding arbitration rights for police officers and firefighters, the union that represents 911 operators and corrections officers is pushing for higher salaries and better benefits, worried that other unions' gains will be their loss.

Because the county's police and firefighter unions will have the right to take the county to binding arbitration if they cannot agree on a contract this year, some government officials and union leaders expect the change will result in larger raises and better benefits than those groups would have otherwise received.

If the county spends more on police and firefighters, other unions worry that there will be less money for their members.

Although the other unions have not been directly critical of binding arbitration for police and firefighters, their concerns about how it may affect them hint at the new law's potential consequences.

"My concern is not with the fire and police filing for binding arbitration. My concern is that the county will use it against the other bargaining units to justify why they can't do anything for the rest of the units," said Jeff Magness, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, which represents 911 operators and corrections officers.

Kory Blake, a representative for the county's members of the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees, said that binding arbitration will give the police and fire unions a powerful tool that other employee groups don't have, meaning other groups could get shortchanged.

"There's only so much in the pot," he said.

Michael K. Day Sr., president of the Baltimore County branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said he doesn't expect other government employees to be hurt by binding arbitration.

Furthermore, he said, the police and fire unions received the right to binding arbitration because they campaigned for an amendment to the county charter, something the other groups also could have done.

"The jealousy factor is coming into play," Day said. "The two organizations within public safety, meaning police and fire, got out and worked their butts off. Now, looking in hindsight, the other, quote, public safety groups are probably kicking themselves in that they didn't get out and work for it."

In November 2002, voters approved a charter amendment authorizing the County Council to grant the right to binding arbitration to the police and fire unions.

Although many public officials quietly fretted that such a system would turn the county's fiscal authority over to an unelected arbitrator, none spoke publicly against the plan.

The police and fire unions made an aggressive push for support, saying the amendment was necessary to ensure they are treated fairly in negotiations. It passed, with 83 percent of the vote.

Because of tight budgets, no group of Baltimore County employees has gotten an across-the-board cost-of-living adjustment for two years. County officials say they expect at least one more lean year before the financial situation improves.

In the 1990s, then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger aggressively increased police salaries, saying Baltimore County was paying less than surrounding jurisdictions.

At the same time, he agreed to a deferred retirement program for police and firefighters. That agreement, recently voted into law by the County Council, gives officers the option of taking large cash payouts -- theoretically as much as $500,000 -- in exchange for lower monthly pension benefits.

To qualify for the payouts, police officers must stay with the department for 27 years; firefighters must stay 32 years.

"County police and fire are constantly getting enhancements," Magness told the County Council at its meeting Tuesday. Dozens of corrections officers and 911 operators packed the council chamber in hopes that they would be recognized for their role in providing public safety.

At that meeting, Magness called for 911 operators to be allowed to retire with full benefits after 25 years instead of 30.

Magness also pushed for greater incentives, which he did not specify, to retain corrections officers, many of whom are eligible to retire soon.

Corrections officers earn between $28,791 and $45,729. Salaries for 911 operators range from $26,204 to $41,782.

In Baltimore County, the executive sets the budget.

Magness said he hopes the councilmen will support his members, but he said the union is considering other demonstrations to put pressure on County Executive James T. Smith Jr. for raises.

Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley said that the terms of the binding arbitration legislation the council passed in the summer will provide some protection for the other unions because it gives the arbitrator broad instructions on what factors to consider in deciding on the terms of a contract.

That means an arbitrator should consider the impact of his decision on other employees, Moxley said.

County Labor Commissioner George Gay said that even if two unions end up with more money as a result of binding arbitration, other unions might win nonfiscal concessions.

"Each group, I negotiate with individually," Gay said. "Binding arbitration changed the law; the process for police and fire is different than for the rest, but I negotiate as I've always negotiated."

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