Firefighters' rejection of contract puzzles Arundel County executive; Owens thought offer to union was like 'giving them gold'; IN THE REGION


Stung by criticism that she's neglecting county firefighters, County Executive Janet S. Owens says she cannot fathom why the firefighters' union rejected new retirement benefits and a 13 percent raise over three years.

"I thought I was giving them gold," Owens said in an interview yesterday, saying the deal is the richest ever offered to Anne Arundel County firefighters.

Owens also criticized County Council members who told an emotional throng of firefighters Monday night that the administration should return to the bargaining table "in good faith."

"It really bothered me," she said, adding that it was "extremely disheartening" to hear council members suggest she has not been operating in good faith.

"They're supposed to be neutral arbiters of the facts and affordability and fairness," Owens said.

If a deal is not reached by May 1, council members will hear from the union and Owens administration before making a recommendation to Owens on a one-year pay raise. She says her offer likely would be 5 percent.

The contract dispute has thrown Owens into one of her more difficult political situations since she was elected in 1998. The Democrat finds the situation ironic, given her support for labor unions. She recently backed Gov. Parris N. Glendening's bill to raise wages for state-funded school construction projects.

The county has not reached new contracts with five other union locals, although jail workers have tentatively agreed to a one-year 5 percent raise pending membership approval.

The firefighters union finds it vexing that Owens refuses to give its members the same package 520 county police officers received: a 17 percent raise over three years. Although Owens insists she never promised wage parity with the police -- "I would never say such a thing," she said -- the union says otherwise.

In what may be a last-ditch effort to reach an agreement, Owens has asked the union to let 470 firefighters vote on the county's offer, which union representatives rejected. Owens is confident it would win approval, but union leaders seem unwilling to budge.

"I'm not sure she fully understands the difference in what she's offered to police and what she's offering us," said Jim Edwards, president of Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters Local 1563.

After three years, he said, firefighters would top out at $47,000 a year, compared with $56,000 for police officers.

But Owens says she cannot spare more money for firefighters. The police contract was more generous, she said, because their pay was further from meeting salaries offered in neighboring counties.

Wages are not the only issue. Owens pointed out that the county offered firefighters an option to retire after 20 years, a choice long afforded police officers. Currently firefighters must wait until they turn 50. Edwards noted that the provision would not kick in until the contract's third year.

In addition, Owens offered firefighters a "drop" plan similar to one the police have that would let retirement-age employees continue working for up to five years while receiving monthly pension checks. Those checks would go into an interest-bearing, tax-deferred account until the employee retired.

Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a Millersville Democrat, and other council members have suggested Owens should have dealt with the police union last to avoid enmity with other unions. Owens dismissed the idea, saying the firefighters "would have felt absolutely manipulated."

The ordeal has taken a toll on her. "I'm really very sympathetic, so it's doubly difficult," she said.

It probably won't get easier. While teachers can expect a 5 percent pay increase under Glendening's teacher raise program (the county would foot 80 percent of the bill at a cost of almost $10 million), Owens said clerical and blue-collar workers likely would get 2 percent salary increases.

Owens blamed past administrations for not paying employees fairly and said she is "trying to stop the bleeding."

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