Firefighters, families rally for better pay; Protest at county offices seeks to 'put a face' on union call for increase


For months, Anne Arundel County firefighters have been telling County Executive Janet S. Owens they deserve pay parity with police. Yesterday, they brought their spouses and children to tell her.

But the firefighters hadn't asked for an appointment, and Owens wasn't in her office yesterday morning when about 50 firefighters and family members arrived for a rally outside county offices. This was the firefighters' third rally.

"We just wanted her to know we were here," said Jim Edwards, president of Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters Local 1563, representing about 500 firefighters and paramedics. "We wanted to put a face on this contract."

"This is a family issue," he said.

Many firefighters rely on overtime to meet the cost of raising their families, said firefighter Robert L. Brown, who worked 48 hours Easter and the day after and will work 24 hours today and then another 10-hour shift before he has a day off again.

"That's what I have to do to feed these girls," he said, standing with his 4-year-old daughter in his arms and his 5-year-old daughter at his side.

Talks with county negotiators have been stalled since early this month, when the union rejected a three-year proposal that would have given firefighters and paramedics an overall 13 percent pay raise.

The county is now offering firefighters a one-year contract with a 5 percent pay raise. Retirement enhancements that had been offered by the county are no longer on the table.

"The retirement package was part of a three-year deal," said county personnel director Randall Schultz.

Owens has said she was stunned when the firefighters rejected the three-year proposal that she thought was "giving them gold."

In addition to the raises, the offer included an option to retire after 20 years and a "drop plan" that would have allowed retirement-age employees the option of continuing to work while their retirement benefits accrued interest.

But firefighters said it was a second-rate offer that would have meant they would still have earned about 20 percent less than firefighters in nearby counties and about $9,000 less than most Anne Arundel County police officers will earn under their new contract.

At the end of the contracts, firefighters would have reached a maximum $47,000 a year compared with $56,000 for police officers, Edwards said.

Under the one-year proposal, about half the firefighters would receive a 2.4 percent raise because they're already at the top of the scale, said Edwards.

Negotiators for the firefighters and for the county met last week with a fact-finder, who will issue a report May 12. The County Council is scheduled to hear from all sides May 22, if an agreement is not reached.

Firefighters have planned public rallies before County Council meetings on Monday and May 15 and May 22.

They also have posted signs asking for public support and sent scores of faxes and e-mails to County Council members in their lobbying effort.

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