Progress reported on union talks

County firefighters say they have reached tentative multiyear agreement

April 22, 2007|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

Anne Arundel County is on its way to finalizing the contracts of its largest unions, quietly resolving a potentially contentious piece of next year's budget.

The president of the county firefighters union, Bob Stevens, confirmed Friday that its more than 800 members have reached a tentative multiyear deal with Anne Arundel officials but would not release the terms. That news came about three weeks after the 560-member police union ratified a two-year agreement with 3 percent annual raises.

Half of the 10 county unions have ratified contracts this month, and others appear close to striking tentative agreements as County Executive John R. Leopold pushes to finalize his first budget by the end of this month.

County Council members consider the progress made with the unions representing police officers and firefighters critical to Leopold producing a tangible spending package for fiscal 2008. He is facing challenges in paying for the new contracts, along with transportation projects to support an expanding Fort Meade, rising health care costs for retired county employees and a backlog of school maintenance.

Both unions had the option of pursuing binding arbitration, a prospect that could have had costly consequences.

"Any time you get the big unions settled ... it goes a long way toward getting the budget settled in May," said County Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican. "I think it's a major help."

Fellow Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Piney Orchard Democrat, said: "I think in total fairness, the administration has done a tremendous job. I am very, very surprised that he was able to do it. I couldn't have predicted it would have gone as well as it did."

Finalized agreements have been made with five unions: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 582, which represent labor maintenance employees; the Fraternal Order of Police; and separately with the sergeants and officers at the county detention centers and correction program specialists.

Anne Arundel officials declined Friday to elaborate on the state of negotiations with the firefighters and the remaining unions, including deputy sheriffs, police sergeants and sheriff's sergeants. A tentative contract agreement reached late last month with AFSCME Local 2563, which represents administrative support staff, has not been finalized.

Representatives for the AFSCME unions and the president of the police union, O'Brien Atkinson IV, could not be reached for comment.

According to county budget figures for the current fiscal year, ending June 30, the county pays $222 million in salaries and benefits for union employees. That figure for union and nonunion workers is about $307 million. This year's operating budget is about $1.1 billion.

The firefighters unions president said his negotiation team remained aware of the county's financial challenges in reaching an agreement.

With attorneys fine-tuning contract language, Stevens said the union will "do everything we can to expedite the process" and ratify the contract before May 1.

Several lawmakers said they have not been informed as to the details of the finalized contracts. Where Leopold will find the funding for the contracts will be their focus.

"I would be concerned because it's unknown whether his request for funding would include an increase in the piggyback tax," Councilman Edward R. Reilly, a Crofton Republican, said. "Again, I may be pleasantly surprised that he will live with the current revenue sources."

Rhonda Wardlaw, a spokeswoman for Leopold, reiterated his refrain that he will not raise the income, or "piggyback," tax to balance the budget he will present for fiscal 2008, which will be in excess of $1 billion.

"For at least '08 you won't see that," County Council Chairman Ronald C. Dillon Jr. said of an income tax increase, "but that will be up in the air in subsequent years."

Not all council members appeared satisfied with the terms of the contract for police officers.

Councilman Joshua J. Cohen, an Annapolis Democrat, worried that 3 percent raises may not be enough to recruit and retain the best talent.

"The county can't throw table scraps at the unions forever. ... We should not be in a situation where we fall behind in the delivery of public safety services," Cohen said. "We should be budgeting ahead so we can stay in the mix."

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