Baltimore police officers got what they described as a stunning note accompanying their biweekly paychecks Friday — a memo from City Hall informing them that their pay will be cut by nearly 2 percent over the next six months.
That means the average officer will see about $205 less in monthly pay starting Jan. 21.
"Baltimore City will never be safe as long as the mayor continues to show her disrespect to the police," said Robert F. Cherry, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.
In November, officers, through their labor union, overwhelmingly rejected the city's one-year contract offer calling for a 2 percent pay cut in exchange for an extra five vacation days. Cherry said he proposed a different, multiyear contract with a temporary pay freeze.
But the mayor's office went to arbitration and won. Now, city leaders say pay cuts for officers that would have been spread out over a year have to be compacted into six months. And the five extra vacation days are no longer part of the package.
In a statement, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she "deeply appreciates the sacrifices every city employee has made to keep the city going, delivering core services during the worst fiscal crisis in the city's modern history and this shared sacrifice has prevented 350 additional layoffs this fiscal year."
Cherry said the city could have renegotiated the contract, and he called the arbitration "political cover" for the mayor to "unilaterally cut our pay." He said the union did not participate in the arbitration process, calling the process nonbinding and saying the results were a foregone conclusion.
Baltimore police are coming off a year in which crime dropped in virtually every category, with 25-year lows in the number of homicides and other violent crime. The mayor and police commissioner have been bragging about the numbers for days.
"How do you get on the camera on Monday and talk about drastic reductions in crime and then take away our pay?" Cherry said. " The only reductions the mayor and the police commissioner aren't talking about is the pay for the police officers, the good guys who take the bad guys with guns off the streets."
Firefighters are taking a similar hit. Their union successfully negotiated with the city but pegged their pay cuts to whatever the police got. That means the 1,700 firefighters will also begin seeing reductions in salary starting Jan. 21. But unlike police, firefighters will get the extra five vacation days.
Representatives of the city's three public safety unions for police and fire joined at a rally in front of City Hall on Friday, backed by members holding signs with slogans such as "Safe neighborhoods are not an accident." One young girl's sign said, "Support my daddy. Good Guy."
The union leaders accused city officials of failing to negotiate in good faith. Bob Sledgeski, president of the firefighters local, said the mayor and her aides "are the ones taking the credit" for a safer city, "while we're the ones doing the work. And they're cutting our pay for it."
A spokesman for the mayor declined to comment on the rally.
Other city workers have taken their pay reductions in the form of furloughs — police officers and firefighters cannot take additional days off, so they take pay cuts instead — that City Hall officials say amounts to cuts greater than those affecting police.
Employees earning less than $30,000 a year are furloughed for four days, roughly a 1.54 percent pay cut. Those earning between $50,000 and $70,000 have to take eight days off without pay, a 3.08 percent salary cut.
Rawlings-Blake donated the amount of her automatic raise last year to the city. Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, who earns $194,815 a year, took a 10-day pay cut in fiscal 2010 and plans an 11-day pay cut in fiscal 2011. Members of the police command staff, who are not in union jurisdiction, also have taken pay cuts in lieu of furloughs.
The cuts were made to close a $121 million budget shortfall. This week, the city's budget director warned that the city faces another shortfall — up to $81 million — and that more cuts might be necessary in the next fiscal year.
Also, starting Friday, every city employee's check will be reduced by $5 a pay period to share the costs of a prescription drug plan.
The new prescription drug payments will help save the city $6.5 million a year and are in addition to co-payments. Until this month, the city paid 100 percent of drug premiums, while the state kicked in 80 percent for its workers. The new plan calls for city employees to contribute about 10 percent of the premiums.
For police, the extra money taken from their paychecks adds up. They have lost a coveted tuition reimbursement plan and are paying more into their pension fund, which also faced dangerous shortfalls last year. Now they're paying more for medicine while getting less money each month.
Bealefeld has repeatedly praised his front-line officers for their hard work despite budget disputes and distractions over cuts to their pensions.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun on end-of-year crime statistics, Bealefeld said he didn't "want to miss the chance" to acknowledge the work his officers did during a turbulent year.
"These guys are really the ones that rolled their sleeves up and got down there and did the work," the commissioner said. "They are the ones in the trenches. And I think in the face of all the other noise that you hear — and there will be continued discussions and continued work to be done on the budgets and finances and contracts — but at the end of the day, we've got to make the city safer.
"And the fact is that these cops are going out there every day and they're making the city safer," Bealefeld said.