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Unions cautiously hopeful over austerity proposal Ecker says workers will be consulted on details of plan


Union leaders who represent Howard County government workers are cautious but hopeful about County Executive Charles I. Ecker's recently announced plan to cut county spending and run government more like private business.

The union leaders are worried about jobs and salaries, but they see opportunities in Mr. Ecker's promise to shape the austerity plan through discussions within teams of employees from all levels of government.

"We want to be pro-active in this," said Dale Chase, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3085, which represents 267 Howard County blue-collar workers.

"The front-line workers know about inefficiencies that the middle managers don't want to hear because they got their own little games going," Mr. Chase said, indicating that any fat in Howard County's government is at the middle-management level.

"These little catch phrases like 'disgruntled employees' don't work anymore. I think they wore them out."

Mr. Ecker unveiled his plan -- aimed at cutting the county budget that takes effect in the summer of 1997 -- to the County Council and then to union leaders in private sessions last week.

He provided few details -- other than his conclusion that changing economic conditions in the county will force 12 percent cuts from existing programs to fund increased education costs, debt service costs and new programs.

County union leaders agree that the county is in a financial fix. But they want more details of Mr. Ecker's plan.

Apart from school workers, four unions represent Howard school government workers: Mr. Chase's union, as well as unions representing police officers, firefighters and correctional officers. Together, they represent about 830 county employees, or about 45 percent of Howard's 1,850 nonschool workers.

Representatives from the four unions met with Mr. Ecker for 30 minutes last Wednesday.

Mr. Ecker called the meeting, he said, to introduce union leaders to the plan.

"My reaction was that they were cautiously optimistic," Mr. Ecker said. "They said they want to cooperate."

But Kevin Henry, president of the Howard County Professional Firefighters, said of the meeting: "Not much was said." Mr. Henry said he'd wait until he could learn more about the plan before deciding his position.

Officer John Paparazzo also attended as the newly elected president of the Howard County Police Officer's Association, which represents about 315 officers. He said he's encouraged by Mr. Ecker's repeated statements that public safety would not be cut as much as other departments and might even see an increase in funding.

Mr. Paparazzo said he will contact his counterpart in Charlotte, N.C., where officials recently carried out a similar austerity plan -- under which the city ended up hiring more police officers while reducing other types of government workers.

Mr. Ecker has said that he'd like to add more police officers in Howard. About 25 new officers are to join the Howard force early next year, Mr. Paparazzo said.

But the police union leader said he is concerned about Mr. Ecker's proposal to start "pay-for-performance" plans among county workers.

Police officers now receive a 2 1/2 percent raise for performance deemed "satisfactory" or higher. Any pay-for-performance raises should be added to the 2 1/2 percent raises, Mr. Paparazzo said.

"I would like to see the true performers compensated maybe a bonus program," Mr. Paparazzo said.

Mr. Chase of AFSCME said Mr. Ecker must be careful with any pay-for-performance plan. "It could end up being a good old boy contest -- how much your supervisor likes you," he said.

Mr. Ecker admitted that pay for performance could be a sticking point with the unions.

"We may need to bargain some of these things," he said.

Mr. Paparazzo liked Mr. Ecker's idea of shaping the austerity plan through employee meetings.

"If they are going to use the teams like they said they would," he said, "that really is going to give labor the edge."

Mr. Chase was asked if Mr. Ecker would stick with the team concept as discussions heat up.

"We're optimistic that he is on the level," he said. "But we just don't know. Right now, Chuck [Ecker] is in the driver's seat."

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