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Police pay, a touchy subject, is done no favors by legislation to raise Harford sheriff's salary [Editorial]

"Pay the troops, Barry.
"Pay the troops, Barry. (Chelsea Carr for The Aegis / Baltimore Sun)

Four issues involving how Harford County pays its countywide police department, otherwise known as the Harford County Sheriff's Office, have come to the fore as the annual Maryland General Assembly session rolls along.

A couple were predictable, namely that the Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union wants the lawmakers to provide the union with the right to collectively bargain with the county government and the sheriff on issues such as wages, benefits and working conditions. In addition, if the union and the government reach an impasse, the deputies want it resolved through third party, binding arbitration.

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What wasn't exactly predictable – or shall we say we didn't see it coming – is an effort to boost the salary of future sheriffs by a minimum of 20 percent, while tying their future pay levels to a District Court judge's. Nor did we foresee all the grousing about the Sheriff's Office pay scales being out of whack after everyone received a 3 percent pay raise last year, while some deputies received raises of as much as 9 percent.

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler is seeking the support of elected officials to fix what his agency describes as a "broken" salary structure, a structure that is broken all the way up to Harford's chief law enforcement officer.

The 300-plus member deputies union is not recognized as a bargaining agent by the county government because current state law doesn't permit it, union leaders said last summer when they first began lobbying for the necessary changes by starting a ballot initiative petition drive that went nowhere. The union can bargain directly with the sheriff on work related issues. The sheriff does not, however, have control over funding – that is controlled by the county executive and the county council – so bargaining just with the sheriff is, for all intents and purposes, pointless.

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Last July in this space we wrote that the deputies union, as well as the union representing the sheriff's correctional officers, should be allowed to collectively bargain with the sheriff and the county on pay and all other issues. This right is currently available to unions representing Harford County government employees, Harford County Public School employees and local municipal government employees. State employee unions and private sector unions have similar rights – that's why they exist in the first place.

The salary scale for Harford County Sheriff's Office deputies must be fixed, or the agency will continue to lose experienced personnel to counties with better pay, and have greater difficulty recruiting new deputies, according to union leaders.

We continue to oppose binding arbitration for these and all other public employee unions. The money that pays law enforcement officers, teachers and county employees ultimately comes from the taxpayers and only people elected by the taxpayers should have authority to disburse it, not some private arbitrator, who collects a check and goes home, regardless of the outcome.

As for the sheriff's own future pay raise, we believe tying this or any other salary to another position makes absolutely no sense.

We'll admit we did not pay close enough attention a year ago when similar legislation was passed in Annapolis to increase the state's attorney's salary to the level of a District Court judge. We would have opposed it, too.

The Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union is still working to get petition signatures to put a charter amendment for collective bargaining rights for deputies on the November ballot, despite disagreement between union and Harford County representatives about the legal process to get it approved.

State's attorneys aren't judges; sheriffs aren't judges, either. Don't hide behind someone else's job. There's no transparency in this kind of legislation – period.

Finally, with regard to the sheriff's and his deputies complaint that their pay scales are being "compressed" by not having adequate pay increases prior to 2015, we'd just remind everyone that the current county executive wasn't in office then.

Harford County residents could be asked in the coming weeks to sign a petition for a county charter amendment allowing Harford County Sheriff's Office deputies' union representatives to negotiate with the county government and create a binding contract.

As a candidate, he pledged to address pay issues for teachers and law enforcement, as well as his own employees, who still have been treated far less generously.

A little more diplomacy and a little less posturing might be in order as budget time approaches and taxpayers, most of whom haven't much either in the way of raises for years, try to hold onto a little more of what they do make.

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