Citizens pay cost of contract mistake


COUNTY firefighters would have you believe that County Executive Janet S. Owens is insulting them with the contract offers she extended to them.

They suggest that the pro-labor executive has bargained in bad faith, low-balling them at the bargaining table.

She hasn't.

Ms. Owens has been fair, even generous. Too generous, in fact.

The county executive has offered her 470 firefighters a sizable pay increase and greatly improved pension benefits. The 13 percent increase over three years is less than the 17 percent, three-year deal for police but will be the envy of clerical workers, blue-collar employees and school administrators -- all of whom can expect no more than 2 percent annual raises.

The county executive was perplexed that union officials accused her of not bargaining in good faith. I'm perplexed, too. In this contract-negotiating game of give-and-take, she has given and given.

Ms. Owens made a crucial error. She agreed to a 17-percent increase for police that stretches her $825.5 million budget. Some say she also made an enormous strategic mistake: She reached the lucrative deal before nailing down contracts with the unions she planned to give smaller increases. She might not have encountered such outrageous demands had she settled the other contracts first. But she points out that she didn't want to negotiate in an underhanded fashion.

Now, however, employees are pointing to the police union's contract and demanding, "Me too."

Better deal for educators

Teachers are among the satisfied few. Ms. Owens' budget provides a 5 percent annual increase for teachers. She had planned to give them 3 percent raises, but Gov. Parris N. Glendening backed her into a larger hike.

The governor, in an attempt to recruit and retain good teachers in Maryland, is kicking in 1 percent increases for classroom educators in jurisdictions that raise teacher salaries by at least 4 percent. Principals and assistant principals in Anne Arundel, quite naturally, want the same deal from Ms. Owens, but the generous governor didn't provide a state match for them. They will probably have to settle for 2 percent increases.

The firefighters' union, also quite naturally, wants parity with police -- percentage for percentage. The union argues that like police officers, its members are public safety employees who provide an invaluable service and therefore are entitled to the same treatment. The union says its numbers, like those of police, are dwindling because workers are fleeing to neighboring jurisdictions that have more competitive salaries and benefits than Anne Arundel County provides.

Not the same job

Not to defend the pay increase for police, but there are differences between crime fighters and firefighters.

Some might argue that firefighters have better schedules than police, but that depends on whether you'd want to work two or three 24-hour shifts a week, or five 8-day shifts.

And although firefighters have a lower pay scale, they earn more than police officers. Jim Edwards, president of Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters Local 1563 has pointed out that firefighters would top out at $47,000 a year, compared with $56,000 a year for police officers in the last year of the proposed contract.

Currently, however, overtime pay pushes the average firefighter's salary to $49,350 a year, compared with an average of $40,913 for police officers. The Sun reported in March that one paramedic worked enough overtime to earn more than $98,000 last year, more than Ms. Owens' $95,000.

In other ways, Ms. Owens has offered firefighters something very similar to their police brethren: an option to retire after 20 years. Police officers have enjoyed that perk for a long time. Currently, firefighters must wait until they become 50 years old. Although this provision would not go into effect until the contract's last year, this is a major gain for firefighters.

Firefighters would gain another enormously generous benefit already available to police officers: a "drop" plan. Under that provision, retirement-age employees can continue working while essentially drawing pensions for up to five years. The pension checks would go into an interest-bearing, tax-deferred account until actual retirement.

That's not bad -- certainly not bad faith.

The county's contract offer demonstrates that Ms. Owens is bending over backward for firefighters. She's providing them gains that would ordinarily send champagne corks flying.

Ms. Owens doesn't deserve the Scrooge label. It's generosity that has gotten her into this trouble.

Norris West writes editorials for The Sun from Anne Arundel County.

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