For the first time in nearly three years, 25,000 unionized Baltimore City workers could be in line for pay raises.
"We have entered into negotiations this year under the assumption that we would like to, if at all possible, provide some modest pay raise for people who have not received a raise for the last 2 1/2 years," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday.
"And when I say modest, I mean modest," the mayor added.
Mayor Schmoke said at his weekly news briefing that the city's firefighters had recently ratified a contract calling for raises averaging just over 2 percent and said other unions could expect increases that would be in that range or less.
"The firefighters usually set the tone for the rest of the negotiations," he said.
But the mayor cautioned that "if all of a sudden the state budget is drastically changed and aid to the city just plummets," the city would have to re-evaluate its position.
City officials said later that the funds for any pay raises would come out of savings in next year's budget and that the raises did not signal that the financially strapped city had turned a corner.
Baltimore's new contract with its firefighters and the talk of raises for other workers is in marked contrast with the fiscal situation in surrounding jurisdictions. Baltimore County last month laid off nearly 400 workers, while Anne Arundel County plans to lay off nearly 100 employees.
The city is now able to consider pay raises rather than make draconian cuts because it acted swiftly when the first cutbacks in local state aid began two years ago, officials said. Those actions included furloughs of thousands of workers, continuation a hiring freeze and curtailment of museum and library hours.
Nonetheless, it will not be "easy to find additional money" in the budget to pay for even minimal raises, said William R. Brown Jr., the city's director of finance.
"We are still looking around to see what might be available," he said.
Savings of about $1 million will be realized from last year's consolidation of the departments of public works and transportation, he said, while additional savings might be found from combining printing and data processing operations.
Mr. Brown said Mr. Schmoke, who has announced he is contemplating running for governor next year, "was concerned employees hadn't had any salary increases for over two years" and asked budget officials to identify savings "in the event negotiations might result in modest pay increases."
He said he could not specify how much money might be available for employee pay raises because the budget, which is scheduled to be submitted to the Board of Estimates late next month, was still being worked on. The city's current operating budget is $1.67 billion.
The one-year contract with the firefighters, approved March 6 by nearly 3-1 margin, is a "bare-bones" package, said William V. Taylor, president of the 1,350-member Baltimore Fire Fighters Local 734.
Under the contract, the highest-paid firefighters with five or more years of experience would earn $32,692 in the year beginning July 1, an increase of $919, he said, and no improvements in benefits.
"I don't say we're ecstatic. What we did was look at what the city could afford to pay us," he said.
Two years ago, the firefighters won a court battle to keep a pay raise the city wanted to withhold because of its fiscal crisis. But they later gave up the increase to spare the jobs of 252 firefighters who were scheduled to be fired because of budget cuts.
Melvin Harris, the city's labor commissioner, said the city was already "actively bargaining" with unions representing police, teachers and white-collar workers. In all, the city has some 25,000 unionized employees represented by 12 bargaining units, with most of the contracts expiring June 30, he said.
"We can't do anything substantial, but within our limited resources we'd like to do something," he said.
But Irene Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the 2 percent raises city officials are talking about are a far cry from what her membership has in mind.
"We certainly won't be talking in that kind of range. We expect some substantial increases," said Ms. Dandridge, whose union represents some 6,000 teachers.