Teachers take a stand on benefits

Health care looms over contract talks in Balto. County

December 28, 2006|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun Reporter

As their union leader read a statement, 50 teachers stood silently in the audience at a Baltimore County Council meeting this month, each holding a piece of paper with a message:

"Quality Educators Deserve Quality Salaries and Quality Benefits."

The county teachers union is in the early stages of contract negotiations with school administrators, whose budget is ultimately approved by the council. And while salaries tend to take priority, one of the biggest issues identified by all sides this year is health care benefits.

Government leaders say that with a large number of people expected to retire in coming years, health care costs will skyrocket. They say they must lower the government's obligation to employees if the county is to remain fiscally strong.

But union leaders say reduced benefits would make it harder to recruit and retain talented teachers.

"Everybody realized that health care was going to be a target this year, and we wanted to pre-empt it by saying we can't take a hit," Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said of the teachers' appearance at the council meeting. "We're not competitive already, and if we take a hit in health care, how competitive are we going to be to retain people?"

Unions representing police officers, firefighters and other public employees are also negotiating new contracts, and health care is expected to be a key issue in those talks as well. Current contracts are set to expire June 30. Contract negotiations typically begin in earnest in January.

The negotiations are taking place against the backdrop of the Government Accounting Standards Board. The nonprofit board decided several years ago that governments must account for the long-term costs of health benefits for current workers after they retire, as well as those for today's retirees.

Failing to do so could affect a government's bond rating, which determines interest rates.

"We have experienced labor negotiators, and they understand that it is better to solve this problem now rather than have to face it down the road," said Donald I. Mohler, a spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "You don't want to ignore it and get to a place where 10, 15 years down the road you say to your retirees, `I'm sorry, we can't afford [health benefits] any more.'"

Baltimore County has set aside $103 million for future retiree benefits. The county estimates it will have to put aside $30 million annually for the next 30 years to meet its obligation to future retirees.

Bost, whose union represents about 9,000 teachers, said she has met with school administrators three times about health care. She said she understands the pending health care costs for the county, but she also wants to make sure teachers get a fair deal.

"Any time we pay more in health care, that decreases any amount of raise we receive," Bost said. "We want to retain the teachers we already have in the school system. And by increasing health care [costs] and diminishing the amount of the salary increase, we won't be able to do that."

The starting salary for teachers in the county is $40,000.

Michael K. Day Sr., president of the local firefighters union, said county employees are likely to be better positioned than their counterparts in other counties to get good deals because of the money the county has set aside for future retirees.

"We're light years ahead of other jurisdictions," he said.

"I think everybody just needs to slow down, take a deep breath," he added. "We'll get through it. The sky is not falling."josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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