While Annapolis officials heaved clumps of grass and dirt into the air marking the start of a $7.9 million construction project yesterday, police officers nearby waved protest signs decrying the lack of pay raises for city workers this year.
Using the Taylor Avenue-West Street intersection and two yellow bulldozers as a backdrop, Mayor Dean L. Johnson called the long-awaited traffic circle project a "new dawn" for the revitalization of the city's west side. More than a dozen city residents, business people and community activists showed up to watch the 8 a.m. groundbreaking.
They were greeted by motorists honking in support of police officers, who handed out yellow fliers that read: "As Annapolis police officers, we work with the community, reduce crime, and risk our lives everyday. Here is what we get from a 'grateful' city: a reduction in real wages, inadequate pension plan and no contribution to retiree health and welfare."
"They've got the money for extravagant projects like these, but they don't have any money to take care of their employees," said Officer John Lee, a shop steward with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents city police officers.
"It doesn't make sense."
Officer Maria Robinson, a shop steward holding a sign that read "Support Fair Wages/Pensions For Police Officers" agreed.
"Once you rebrick the circle and repave the streets, who is going to protect and patrol it?" Robinson said. "We are."
It was the second time in less than a month, since contract negotiations with the city fell through, that the police union has taken its fight public.
Last month, the union placed full-page advertisements in local newspapers, asking residents to help officers by lobbying city council members. The union also handed out fliers in front of City Hall yesterday.
The union grabbed the spotlight again last night when more than 70 police officers, their spouses and children appeared in city council chambers as their colleagues testified on the need for raises in front of the nine-member council.
Speaking to the same group later during a question-and-answer session on a staircase in City Hall, Officer John Miller, the chief shop steward, said, "We are committed to getting the best out of this proposal, so be prepared not to take anything less.
"Be prepared to take it to the street like we did today," Miller said. "The support is there. The mayor is going to lose any type of public arena battle against us."
The bickering heated up re- cently after the mayor released a $42.5 million budget proposal that contained a tax increase but no raises for city workers. City contracts with all four unions -- police, fire and two units of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- expire June 30. City workers have not received raises in three years.
Talks with the police union have deadlocked, but union officials are expected to meet individually with six aldermen today to discuss the issues, said Miller, who added that he is hopeful for a quick resolution.
Negotiations with the other unions continue.
Police Chief Joseph S. Johnson, who also attended the groundbreaking ceremony, said of the dispute, "It's unfortunate because the men have worked hard, and they've done a good job. But I know Dean is trying to compensate them. I'm just hoping they'll be able to work it out."
The mayor expressed the same wish but rejected the idea that the city was spending money lavishly.
He said employees are getting step increases in their salaries every year or 18 months and pointed out the city will spend about $315,000 next year on skyrocketing health care costs for city workers.
"This is a free country," Johnson said of the protest. But as for criticism of the West Street project, he said, "It is not an extravagant project."
The project "has taken an awful lot of decades and hours of sweat and planning put into it. It was made possible by a lot of dreaming by a lot of people involved," the mayor said.
It fulfills a 12-year promise by the city to revitalize the seven-block stretch of inner West Street, from Church Circle to Taylor Avenue, a project that will cost about $16 million, including the circle.
Plans include placing utilities underground, replacing water and sewer lines, rebricking sidewalks and repaving streets.
City officials said the area is the last that can be developed in the city and their last hope to create new tax revenue and attract businesses away from nearby Parole.
Funding for the circle, which will take two years to finish, comes from city bonds, Anne Arundel County and the state.
Former Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins, credited with bringing the circle project to fruition, said the project is vital to the city's future.
"We got the east side of town straightened out with Main Street renovations, and now it's time we're taking care of the west side," Hopkins said. "Pretty soon, uptown will look just as good as downtown."
Pub Date: 5/05/98