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Compromise on pension issue looms Council Republicans upgrade plan, call for 25 years of service; 'It will go through'; Police, firefighter talks with county set to resume today


Tempers have cooled since Monday's emotional vote rejecting 20-year retirement for Howard County police and firefighters. Now all sides are moving toward a compromise that might end the dispute quickly -- in time to avoid $1 million in cuts from other parts of the county budget.

County Council Republicans -- who were uneasy voting against police and firefighters Monday -- now are offering a substantially improved retirement plan, though one available only to those who stay 25 years or longer.

And union officials -- who were bitter at the Republicans, normally their allies, after the 20-year retirement plan failed on a 3-2 vote along party lines -- are sounding more conciliatory, perhaps in recognition that the council's Republican majority holds the power to veto any deal.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, also a Republican, had negotiated the deals, which traded police and firefighting schedule changes -- which he says are worth $1 million in this year's budget -- for the 20-year retirement.

Now that Republicans have rejected those contracts, talks between union and administration officials are tentatively scheduled to resume this afternoon . Both sides expect retirement -- and perhaps the compromise offer from council Republicans -- to be the main focus.

"Maybe that's something that needs to be pursued," said firefighter union President Jeff Loomis of the Republican proposal. "We're not just going to say, 'To heck with it.' Any change in the retirement system is a benefit to someone, whether at 20 years or 25 years."

Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican -- who said he was "hurt and disappointed" that dozens of police officers walked out of Monday's meeting as he spoke -- said council Republicans are ready to support a compromise.

"I know it will go through," said Feaga. "We'll all smile and be happy."

A moment later, he added: "I don't know if we'll all be happy, but we'll smile."

There is another reason for the renewed urgency in negotiations. Ecker has until April 23 to propose an operating budget for the fiscal year starting in July.

He had been counting on the money saved through scheduling concessions built into the police and firefighter contracts to beef up both departments next year.

With those deals rejected, he plans to cut $1 million from other areas of the budget to hire more police officers and firefighters. Only a quick resolution of the retirement issue can prevent those cuts.

"I'm going to have to try and accomplish in a couple weeks what it took a year to do," said Cecil Bray, the Ecker aide who spent nearly a year negotiating with both unions to reach the deal rejected by the County Council on Monday.

Under that deal, police and firefighters could have retired after 20 years and earned 50 percent of their final salaries every year for the rest of their lives. The package improved with longevity, up to 57 1/2 percent of their salary after 25 years and a maximum of 65 percent of their salary after 30 years.

As a compromise, council Republicans are now offering to approve the deal -- as is -- from the 25th year on.

That would eliminate the possibility of retiring at 20 years at 50 percent salary, but it would mean that those retiring at 25 years would get the 57 1/2 percent amount, a major improvement over the current plan which pays 50 percent at 25 years.

Current rules penalizing police and firefighters who retire before their 25th year would stay in effect under the Republican plan. Those rules allow police or firefighters who retire in 20 years, for example, to receive partial retirement payments of 34 percent.

Neither union nor county officials know how much the new Republican plan would cost.

The big question is whether the unions will accept a scaled-back retirement package while still honoring the scheduling concessions that county officials want. Union officials say they are uncertain whether the deal remains a good one for members.

"If we give them up now for some half-hearted offer, we have nothing to give up in the future," said John Paparazzo, president of the police union.

Ecker had tried unsuccessfully to sell the 20-year plan to his fellow Republicans by saying that the scheduling concessions from the unions would have saved enough money to pay for the improved retirement and give the county enough money to hire more police and firefighters.

With those contracts rejected, he is looking for the $1 million in other areas of the budget.

Ecker said concessions from the firefighter union were worth 20 new positions, costing $400,000. The police union contract -- which changes the current 9 1/2 -hour schedule to a 12-hour schedule, eliminating overlap between shifts -- saves $610,000, enough to pay for 37 positions.

"My biggest problem right now," Ecker said, "is finding that money."

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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