The Neall administration wants to delay contract talks with six unions until next January, saying that revenue will not rise enough to pay for across-the-board pay raises next year.

Union leaders reachedyesterday were divided on the proposal. Some said the request was expected; others questioned reports of the county's precarious fiscal health.

Although the Office of Budget projects a $17 million surplus for the fiscal year, Personnel Director Richard Mayer said Anne Arundel government cannot afford cost-of-living raises or other contract changes sought by the county's 3,500 employees.

County Executive RobertR. Neall imposed an 18-month hiring freeze two months ago and has ordered no-growth budgets from department heads for fiscal 1992, which begins July 1. But merit pay raises in the coming year will cost the county more than $14 million.

In a letter sent to Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 70 on Jan. 14, Mayer wrote: "Based on our best projections, therefore, across-the-board wage increases will not be possible in fiscal year 1992. Neither will it be possible for Anne Arundel County to agree to any language that would result in even minimal costor that would even slightly hinder management's ability to enhance productivity."

Mayer also wrote that contract talks -- scheduled tobegin this month -- are not likely to prove "particularly fruitful,"given the constraints on county finances.

The six labor contractsexpire in June. But Mayer said yesterday that "it might be easier and less difficult for everyone to extend the contract" until the economy improves.

He suggested that if the unions insist on negotiatingnew agreements this year, it could end up costing rank-and-file jobs.

"We don't want to lay people off," Mayer said. "We want to preserve jobs."

A 1 percent cost-of-living increase would cost the county $4.7 million. A 4 percent raise, which was given the past two years, would cost $18.8 million.

"We just don't have the money for those increases," Mayer said.

County revenues are expected to increase next year by 3.7 percent to more than $625 million. Revenue this year is expected to grow only 3.3 percent, marking a sharp drop from the past two years, when revenue increased 10.6 percent and 6.9 percent.

At the same time, spending on existing programs is expected to rise to more than $642 million even without initiatives by Neall, who took office in November.

Neall has said repeatedly that the countyneeds to preserve its projected surplus -- about 2.8 percent of the $617 million operating budget -- to protect the county's bond rating.

Frank Stokes, head of the Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters Union Local 1563, said he was not surprised by Mayer's letter.

"Everyone is aware of the economy and what is going on," said Stokes, whose union was the only one to endorse Neall last year. "But it is our priority to look after our people."

He said the union's board of directors was to meet last night and decide how to approach the situation. A membership meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.

Mayer's letter was not well-received by James Bestpitch, vice president ofthe Local 582 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

"We didn't expect this type of letter. It's just something he threw at us," said Bestpitch, whose union representsblue-collar workers at the utilities and public works departments. "At this time, we're going to treat this like any other contract negotiation."

Noting that the Department of Utilities held its "Employee of the Year" banquet at La Fontaine Bleu in Glen Burnie on Friday, he said, "That doesn't show me signs of economic recession."

Mayeralso said the Board of Education may ask its 7,000 employees to delay renegotiating their contracts, which also expire in June.

"That to me is not negotiating, saying, 'We're not going to give you anything, so there's no point in negotiating,' " said Thomas Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.

The unionhas been meeting with the board since October, and both sides hope to conclude a pact when they meet Friday.

"I can't sit here and tell you we will end up with results that are acceptable to the unions,"said William Scott, the board's assistant supervisor for administration. "But at this point, we're still in the process of negotiating. We're not making good progress in the (salary) issue. That might result in an impasse, and it might not."

He said the board has no plansto follow the county's example and seek a delay in talks with its four unions.

But the board is at an impasse with the Secretaries andAides Association of Anne Arundel County, and both sides are seekingmediation help from the state Board of Education.

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