Firefighters delay raise

Tentative pact with union would save the county $900,000 in first year

March 29, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

Howard County's firefighters have tentatively agreed to delay for six months their scheduled 6 percent pay raises in each of the next two fiscal years, a bow to a recession that has public employees all over Maryland facing unpaid furloughs and even layoffs.

Instead of getting a 6 percent increase July 1 in 2010 and 2011, the 315 firefighters will get their increases on Jan. 1 in those two years.

The move helps discourage potential perception that the raises are out of line with the times and with what other public employees are getting, County Executive Ken Ulman said. They will also help Ulman's administration conserve revenues for the Fire Department, which come from a dedicated fund supplied by homeowners who pay a separate fire property tax.

FOR THE RECORD - An article appearing in Sunday's Howard sections incorrectly stated when Howard County firefighters will get their raises. They will receive pay increases Jan. 1 of 2010 and 2011. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

If approved next month by the Howard County Professional Firefighters Local 2000, the agreement would cut the county's cost increase for the first year from $1.8 million to $900,000. The County Council also must approve the funding for each year's budget.

Among Ulman's strongest backers during his 2006 election campaign, the firefighters negotiated a four-year pact after his victory that called for a 6 percent cost-of-living increase annually as a way to bring Howard's pay closer to that of nearby jurisdictions.

"We've been underpaid for so long," said Rich Ruehl, president of the local. "We still won't be number one or number two, but we'll be in the mix."

This year, Ulman approached Ruehl with a request for help, in light of the recession. The agreement will help the county avoid having to increase the fire tax in future years, he said.

County police have agreed to no cost-of-living raise next fiscal year and the school board included a figure that would amount to a 1 percent raise for education workers, though no contract agreement has yet been reached. In other jurisdictions such as state government, Baltimore City and Montgomery County, workers are facing furloughs and possible layoffs because of slumping revenues.

"We thought it was important to look at what we could do to help," Ruehl said.

Union pay for Howard firefighters now ranges from a starting salary of $41,783 for recruits to $68,340 for the most senior employees. Firefighters, like police, can retire after 20 years.

In Montgomery County, firefighters' pay ranges from $43,278 to $90,918, officials there said.

Anne Arundel County pays from $36,073 to $71,204. Prince George's County pay ranges from $40,848 to $71,047.

Ulman and Ruehl said the county needed to boost firefighters pay to stay competitive, especially to keep experienced people who might be tempted to move to nearby jurisdictions.

"Perception is a big thing, and we understand that," Ruehl said. "We also understood that without a pretty significant step forward we were going to be mired in the [salary] basement for years and years and years to come."

"We'd fallen behind," Ulman said, though adding that he couldn't have known two years ago that such a steep recession would be coming.

Ruehl said that despite the delayed raises, firefighters still will be making progress in catching up to counterparts in surrounding counties.

"It's important for our members to realize and understand that in the end we're essentially going to be where we thought we were going to be," he said. "The savings I think we'll be able to generate will be significant enough to prepare for the long haul."

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