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Fire union rallies for pay; Firefighters want wage scale similar to police officers'; Council voices support


One by one, dozens of Anne Arundel County firefighters explained why they deserve a contract as generous as the new police contract. They spoke of having to work overtime to pay bills, of risking their lives for relatively low pay, of having to think about taking better-paying jobs in Montgomery County.

When the firefighters finished, members of the County Council did as they had hoped, urging County Executive Janet S. Owens to resume negotiations in search of an agreement the firefighters union can accept.

"I would encourage the county executive in good faith to go back to the bargaining table," said Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat.

If Owens doesn't do that, warned Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican, "we're going to cut from someplace else [in Owens' proposed 2000-2001 budget] in order to pay you."

Klocko's pledge created a roar in council chambers. Well over 100 firefighters and family members, wearing red-and-white "support your firefighters" T-shirts, erupted in applause and cheers.

Earlier, firefighters staged a rally in front of the Arundel Center to publicize their frustrations. They lined Calvert Street holding placards with messages such as, "Most dangerous job in the county -- still lowest paid."

Firefighters say they want a deal similar to one that county police officers got recently.

The police contract includes a 17 percent raise over three years. The county has offered firefighters 13 percent during that span. The firefighters union has asked for 18 percent over three years, with much of the increase deferred to the latter two years.

"Public safety is public safety, whether it's police or fire," said firefighter Joseph Powell, whose colleagues cheered passing cars when drivers honked in support. "The county keeps saying they're going to take care of us, and they never have," he said.

LeRoy A. Wilkison, a member of the firefighters union negotiation team, approached Owens as she was getting out of her car to press his case personally. Her response during the brief encounter: "Not much," Wilkison said.

The current contract expires June 30.

Wilkison said Anne Arundel firefighters earn 39 percent less per hour, on average, than their counterparts in surrounding counties. A firefighter with 19 years of experience makes $41,000 a year.

Although county payroll records show that firefighters on average earn about $8,500 more than police officers do, mostly due to significant overtime, the firefighters union says the figures are misleading. They say the numbers reflect $4 million in back pay that the county was ordered to pay 143 paramedics under a 1998 court case.

Also last night, the council unanimously voted to cap the number of commercial bingo licenses at four, responding to vocal community opposition to a planned fifth bingo hall on the Broadneck Peninsula. If any of the four operators loses its county license -- and one is on the verge of doing just that -- the cap will drop accordingly.

The county rejected the Broadneck proposal, but the Board of Appeals is scheduled to hear the case May 18. The appeal may be moot, however, as Owens is expected to sign the bill, meaning the law will likely take effect before the Board of Appeals rules.

This year, some council members proposed exploring whether commercial bingo should even be allowed to continue in Anne Arundel, one of the few places outside Nevada and Indian reservations where the for-profit variety remains legal. They backed off after saying government-imposed abolition would be unfair to the bingo operators, some of whom opened their doors nearly 50 years ago.

The bill does not affect bingo games benefiting charities or fire companies and played at churches and firehouses.

One existing bingo hall, Treasure City in Annapolis, could be shut down. The county revoked its license because the bingo hall did not report financial information on a timely basis. The Board of Appeals is scheduled to hear the case April 11.

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