Baltimore County must pay an estimated $1.2 million in back wages to its unionized police officers because they were illegally furloughed for five days during a 1992 budget crunch, Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday.
The Court of Appeals said in a unanimous ruling that a provision in the union's contract forbidding furloughs was valid and that the 1992 furloughs were not authorized by county or state law.
"Neither the Baltimore County charter nor the Baltimore County code contains any provision which authorizes what the county did here," Judge John C. Eldridge wrote in a 20-page decision.
The ruling reversed a 1993 ruling by Baltimore County Circuit Judge John F. Fader, who held that the county charter authorized former County Executive Roger B. Hayden to furlough the 1,418 officers despite the no-furlough clause in their contract.
Lt. L. Timothy Caslin, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 4, which represents the officers, said he was "absolutely thrilled" with the decision.
The furloughs, announced Dec. 17, 1991, required each officer to take off without pay one day a month between February and June of 1992. They cost a starting patrolman about $460 and a lieutenant about $1,000, county officials said.
The appeal cost the union an estimated $50,000, Lieutenant Caslin said. "One thing that's always been important to the officers is collective bargaining, and we saw this as an attack on collective bargaining," he said.
A decision upholding Judge Fader would have jeopardized collective bargaining agreements for public employees across the state, said Jeffrey L. Gibbs, the police union attorney.
Jay Doyle, a spokesman for Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, said county officials were reviewing the opinion and would not comment.
County lawyers had argued that a provision in the charter allowed the county administrative officer to "revise, alter or change" spending in individual departments after the budget has been approved by the County Council.
But Judge Eldridge said that provision refers to spending for equipment -- not wages specified by labor contracts. "The section does not refer to contractual obligations," he wrote.
Mr. Hayden ordered five-day furloughs for all county employees to make up $12.5 million of a projected budget deficit caused by state budget cuts and by a recession that drained county revenues. The police union appealed the furlough to an arbitrator.
A labor arbitrator ruled in favor of the union and the county appealed that decision to Circuit Court.