Aberdeen police turn to the voters

Referendum being sought to decide on use of binding arbitration in labor disputes

October 16, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

During 30 years with the Aberdeen Police Department, Sgt. James G. Testerman has seen it all, from drug arrests to shootings to high-speed chases. Unfortunately, he says, he has also seen dozens of talented officers leave the force for better pay and benefits.

Testerman, who plans to retire soon, said any remedy the city might come up with would probably be too late for him. But this week, the city's police officers made a major move toward achieving collective bargaining with binding arbitration, which would send stalled negotiations on compensation and working conditions to a third party.

On Monday, the Fraternal Order of Police gathered more than 1,500 signatures on a petition calling for a referendum that would leave the decision up to voters next month.

If successful, the union could wrest control of the dispute away from the City Council, which maintains that Aberdeen does not have the money to meet the union's demands.

A "yes" vote on the referendum, they said, could translate into a property tax increase of 3 cents or more if an arbitrator concurs with the union.

"The question of higher pay goes much further," Mayor Doug Wilson said.

The contract dispute has emerged as a central theme in the Nov. 8 election. The FOP, which has been campaigning for challenger S. Fred Simmons since he decided to run, tried to organize a debate among the four candidates. All but Simmons declined to take part, claiming bias on the part of the FOP.

As a result of the petition, which officers said they took door to door, voters will be asked to support or reject a city charter amendment that would allow binding arbitration to settle disputes between the city and the police.

Members of the 39-officer department are seeking salaries similar to those of the county force's officers, increased benefits and a requirement that all sworn officers join the new union, with the exception of Chief Randy Rudy.

Negotiations to achieve these objectives have been unsuccessful for more than a year. Binding arbitration, the union said, is a last option.

"If it needs to go to that, both sides have failed," said Joseph K. Bray, an officer and the local union's president. "It means somebody's putting a wall up and making empty promises."

Public safety unions often favor binding arbitration with a third-party mediator because they are not allowed to strike. Arbitration shifts final say in a collective-bargaining agreement from the city government to the arbitrator.

Baltimore and Ocean City, and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Prince George's and Montgomery counties have settled disputes through binding arbitration for years.

In some cases, police have been surprised to find that the county governments are able to retain some control, voting against decisions reached by the arbitrators as part of the annual budget process. It's a power rarely exercised. The Montgomery County Council has rejected an arbitrator's ruling twice in more than 20 years.

Ocean City's Town Council was in court last week after voting to appeal a ruling that granted six high-ranking officers collective-bargaining rights. The town attorney said they should be considered part of management and shouldn't have such rights.

Historically, binding arbitration has favored unions, except when the government is struggling financially, said Carol Rollins, labor-employee relations manager for Montgomery County.

"Arbitrators tend to think governments have deep pockets," Rollins said. "Unless the government can put on a good showing that they're in poor financial shape, the unions will usually win."

Bray said that even if the referendum succeeds, the FOP won't pressure the city for money the next day. Instead, he said, it will become a tool available as negotiations continue.

"With the financial state the city's in, we understand it's going to take time," he said. "This is nothing more than an insurance policy for us."

Wilson, an accountant, said the city wants to work to address pay disparity between the Aberdeen Police Department and neighboring forces, and he said he has included three new officers in the coming budget for the first time in "eons."

Tax revenue from a commercial development near Ripken Stadium, scheduled to be built next year, could pay for the increases.

"Nobody's talking about that," he said.

In the meantime, said the interim city manager, Donald Brand, budget consultants have advised the city that meeting the officers' pay demands would result in a 2 1/2 - to 3-cent increase in property taxes for residents. If interest rates fall, Brand said, that could go as high as 10 cents.

For every pay increase and every new officer, the city has to put aside more money for a police pension plan.

Simmons, the union's choice for mayor, said the city has the money - but isn't looking hard enough.

"When it got to the point where they couldn't get creative enough to figure out where they were wasting their money, all they could think of was: tax increase for pay increase," Simmons said.

To that end, Brand said, he favors zero-based budgeting if he becomes permanent city manager. That would involve annually re-evaluating the budget from top to bottom, rather than adding or subtracting from year to year.

Councilman Ronald Kupferman said it comes down to priorities.

"There's a lot of things a council can do to map out a budget strategy," he said. "You've got X-number of money available, so where's it going to go? You've got to rank your priorities."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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