Police and fire pacts OK'd

Police to receive a 5% raise

firefighters are to get an increase of 6%

May 20, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

Howard County police and firefighters have overwhelmingly approved two generous contracts that offer 5 percent and 6 percent raises, and among the best starting salaries in the Baltimore region.

County Executive Ken Ulman campaigned hard last year on a commitment to bolster public safety, and Howard County Sheriff James F. Fitzgerald, a former union president whom Ulman endorsed, said the 5 percent raise for police officers and 6 percent raise for firefighters reflected the executive's desire to keep his word.

On Wednesday, the County Council will vote on a $1.3 billion budget that includes the first raises in police and firefighters' multiyear contracts. Teachers negotiated 5 percent raises with the school board.

All three unions strongly backed Ulman's election campaign last year against Republican Christopher J. Merdon.

The pay packages have prompted protests from nonunion workers. Last week, more than 65 county employees delivered petitions protesting "the fundamental unfairness" of Ulman's proposed 3 percent raise for nonunion workers -- a symbolic statement that is not likely to change things.

Council members have no power to add money to the budget -- they can only cut it. Police and fire unions have approved their contracts by wide margins, and teachers negotiate with the school board, not the county executive.

"The nonunion employee, just like their unionized co-worker, lives in and shops in Howard County," the petition reads.

During two budget hearings last week, Joan Lewis Kennedy, Ulman's lobbyist, argued that public safety employees should be treated differently because they put themselves in harm's way. Richard Ruehl, president of the county's fire union, agreed.

"I certainly don't wish to disparage general county employees, but they don't take the same risks we take on a daily basis," he said.

The fire department contract awards union members 6 percent raises every year for four years. The contract would increase the starting salary for a trainee from $35,718 to $37,864 on July 1. By the end of the four-year contract, the starting salary would be more than $45,000.

"We only went for one thing, and that was money," Ruehl said. "During meetings back in December, we asked our members what they wanted to make a priority, and their No. 1 priority was bringing our wages up to a competitive level."

Union members approved the contract by a 124-to-10 vote.

First-year Howard County firefighters now rank at the top in salary among six jurisdictions -- Washington, and Prince George's, Montgomery, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, Ruehl said.

But salaries for Howard County firefighters who have served the county for 17 1/2 years -- the top of the pay scale -- rank last among the six, Ruehl said. He said the 6 percent raises move the salaries for the most experienced members of the department to the middle of the pack.

"I'm sure in the next four years we'll probably be leap-frogged by other jurisdictions, but that's just the way it goes," Ruehl said.

The county's police officers won 5 percent raises every year for two years, but also negotiated for other benefits, including a program that would allow some officers to take their patrol cars home if they live outside of the county.

The contract, which was approved by a 151-to-12 vote, allows Chief William J. McMahon to set limits on how far away officers can live and still take home their cars. Now, only officers on special squads are allowed to take their cars home if they live in other counties.

"This is something that's going to evolve and that we're going to phase-in," McMahon said. "We don't have the resources to buy a new car for all of those people who may be eligible for it."

Officers also won an automatic 3.25 percent raise after 20 years of service, beginning in 2009.

The raises move the Police Department's starting salary from $40,832 to $43,742 on July 1 -- ahead of all of the Baltimore-area departments except Baltimore County. However, newly hired police officers in Baltimore County took drastic cuts in retirement benefits in exchange for better pay, said Cpl. Jason Baker, president of the county's police union.

"We have the best overall package, absolutely," he said. "Our retirement system far surpasses other jurisdictions."

Baker said that the perks were necessary given the county's requirement that recruits have two years of college credit or equivalent military credentials. McMahon said that despite the raises, he still wants to change the way the college requirement must be met -- from before to during the police academy.

"I think if you look at Prince George's and Montgomery counties, and some of the Washington-area jurisdictions, the comparisons give you a different picture," McMahon said. "I think this is going to make us more competitive, especially because there are other benefits to working for Howard County. We have a pretty well-equipped and funded department, but we do have things working against us, like our housing costs."

The teachers union contract has not been signed, but both sides have agreed to 5 percent raises for teachers each year for two years, said Patti Caplan, a spokeswoman for the school district. Some teachers also will get step-increases based upon their tenure.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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