County Executive Charles I. Ecker's request for flexibility to impose a wage freeze on county workers won mixed support last week from the county personnel board.

Eliminating pay raises, longevity bonuses and some salary incentives could trim $2 million in costs, Ecker said.

He is sending the council three bills, all recommended Wednesday by the personnel board, that would allow him to do just that.

For several weeks, Ecker has said that while he hopes a pay freeze will be unnecessary, it is becoming increasingly likely and would be preferable to laying off or furloughing employees.

On Wednesday, county administrator Buddy Roogow told the personnel board that if permission to impose a wage freeze is not granted, layoffs and furloughs may be the administration's only alternative.

Ecker, faced with declining revenues and an expected shortfall of $25 million, has already asked department heads to cut their budgets by 10 percent.

Even with those cuts, the county still needs to come up with another $13 million just "to maintain basic public health, safety and education levels," a spending advisory committee told Ecker Monday.

One of the three bills being sent to the council would discontinue for one year premiums paid certain engineers for their expertise and would save $30,000. The other two bills would allow Ecker to lower longevity increasesand merit raises down to nothing.

If wages were frozen, the county would save $800,000 in longevity pay and $1.2 million in merit pay,the personnel board was told. Employees whose work is deemed satisfactory have been receiving 5 percent merit increases annually for morethan a decade.

Although the personnel board was divided about which pay incentives, if any, should be eliminated, all agreed that merit raises should be cut only as a final step to laying off or furloughing employees.

Sandra Jaffe, who voted with Dennis W. Vittetoe against a freeze on merit raises, told her colleagues that "if we allow the county not to grant merit increases, we may bear a cost that willfar exceed any savings."

Regardless, the three other board members reluctantly supported the administration's position, agreeing with board member Cecil G. Christian that it was "the lesser of two evils."

Even then, the support was tenuous.

Upon recommendation of board member Mimi O'Donnell, the board attached a rider to the bills stating that if they are enacted, the administration would be required to publicly review its budget with the personnel board four times a year. The rider also would require Ecker to come before the board in apublic meeting before laying off any employees.

If merit raises are not paid, the board wants the administration's assurance that the raises will be returned to employees if additional revenues are foundduring the year. The best way to achieve that goal, board members said, is to require quarterly budget briefings.

Vittetoe, who is theonly employee representative on the board, voted against all three bills.

A Vittetoe motion to reject the longevity bill altogether drew loud applause from the more than 200 employees present, some of whom booed or shouted "Aw, come on!" when the motion died for lack of asecond.

"It's good to make recommendations and it's good to listen to employees," Vittetoe said. "Other county residents need to bear the shortfall (by paying higher property taxes) as much as employees."

When Vittetoe saw he did not have the votes to defeat the three proposals, he sought to avoid a board vote altogether. He requested that the board merely forward the bills to the County Council with employees' objections and the board's recommendations for quarterly briefings and restoration of raises if money becomes available.

Despite support from Jaffe, the remaining board members agreed with Christian and board chairman Michael P. Hickey that the board should send the council a "clear signal."

The signal is that merit pay is of thehighest priority, but if Ecker is not given the flexibility he wants, it might mean tying the administration's hands so tightly that layoffs result.

Vittetoe said it more simply: "The clear message is that we want for the employees what we can get."

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