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Firefighter pay report due today; Independent review could help solve county, union dispute


Anne Arundel county officials and firefighters haven't agreed on much in contract negotiations. But they are splitting the bill on an independent fact-finder's report due out today that could help resolve their dispute.

The nonbinding report, costing each side about $1,500, will detail how much of a raise the firefighters should receive.

County officials offered the firefighters a 5 percent pay raise next year, followed by 5 percent and 3 percent raises the following years.

Union officials representing the county's nearly 500 firefighters and paramedics said they would accept that proposal, if it included longevity raises, improved pension benefits and a "true" 5 percent raise.

The county's proposal included a reconfigured pay scale that union officials said would mean the 300 firefighters and paramedics at the bottom and top of the scale would receive a 2.6 percent raise.

The fact-finding report had been expected Friday.

"We think it will go our way," said Jim Edwards, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Firefighters Local 1563. "We're lowest paid and work the longest hours."

Edwards estimates a contract that includes a "true" 5 percent salary increase would cost the county about $2 million -- less than 1 percent of the county's $825.5 million operating budget.

Union officials hope to meet later this week with County Council members, who will decide how to resolve the labor dispute Monday if a settlement has not been reached.

The impasse hearing has been tentatively scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday.

It is common for unions and county officials to split the cost of arbitration and fact-finding.

For more than a month, firefighters have been rallying before County Council meetings -- holding signs and encouraging motorists to honk their horns in support. Last night, about 30 protesters gathered outside the Arundel Center.

"County residents pay top dollar for public safety services," Edwards said yesterday, as he again criticized County Executive Janet S. Owens and her advisers for "not making all public safety employees' salaries a priority" in the budget.

There are 23 vacancies in the Fire Department. Although there are hundreds of applicants, Edwards said, "it's hard to find qualified people who are willing to go into burning buildings, cut open cars and take a position where there's a 50 percent chance you'll be injured or killed on the job."

Edwards said that according to random surveys, it appears that as many as half of the firefighters and paramedics are considering better-paying jobs in other counties.

However, if council members wanted to increase the county's offer, they would have to reappropriate money from the proposed budget to meet the financial obligation.

Owens could veto their request.

Owens has been saying that she values the firefighters and paramedics and made them an offer that she can't understand why they would refuse.

Yesterday, her spokesman Andrew Carpenter said, "The county executive made her best offer months ago and the union didn't bring it to the membership for a vote."

He declined to comment further, noting the continuing negotiations.

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