County officials, employees seek to break contract impasse


Anne Arundel County Council members will referee tomorrow one last standoff between administrators and union officials representing 1,000 county employees who have not reached a labor agreement.

An impasse hearing has been scheduled at 4 p.m. for county officials and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, whose members range from 911 dispatchers to road crews.

The council will make a recommendation for a one-year contract agreement, probably by midweek.

An impasse hearing had also been scheduled tomorrow for the county's 500 firefighters and paramedics. But union officials and administrators reached a tentative agreement late Friday.

This week, firefighters and paramedics will be presented with the last-minute compromise, which was based on an independent fact-finder's recommendation of a three-year contract with a 15 percent raise and the county's offer of a 13 percent raise. The two sides agreed to keep details of the agreement secret until the vote.

Union rules require a seven-day review period before a membership vote can be scheduled, said Jim Edwards, president of Professional Firefighters Local 1563.

That would mean the contract would be voted on May 30 and 31 -- after the county budget is approved.

If the proposed resolution is not ratified by members, the current contract would continue.

"We have an outstanding Fire Department, and I am pleased we have been able to work together to reach a resolution," County Executive Janet S. Owens said Friday night through her spokesman, Andy Carpenter.

Firefighters were not offered a straight 15 percent raise, according to sources, but negotiators appeared to be satisfied with the pay-scale restructuring.

The union representing deputy sheriffs had also been scheduled for an impasse hearing tomorrow. But members voted Thursday night to accept a three-year contract that provides an overall 7 percent pay raise, reorganizes the pay scale, and includes clothing and gun allowances.

Owens directed county negotiators to make one last offer to the county's 500 firefighters and paramedics based on an independent fact-finding report that was issued Tuesday.

But no such offer was made to the union that represents the 1,000 county workers, said Local 582 President Scott Harmon.

An independent fact-finder issued a report recommending a 4 percent salary increase for employees next year, and 2 percent raises the second and third years of the contract, but county administrators rejected the recommendation. The county had offered 2 percent annual raises over the next three years.

Fact-finding reports, written by outside arbitrators, usually carry substantial weight in the negotiation process. "I absolutely can't believe the county didn't move to make a compromise," said Harmon. "In the lean years, we did without. Now we're in the surplus years, and they still say they can't pay us."

The extra 2 percent above what the county had originally offered is "not a lot in the grand scheme of the budget this year," Harmon said.

But county Personnel Director Randy Schultz said, "We believe [the fact-finder] is recommending a settlement that exceeds what is reasonable based on the fiscal issues." The additional 2 percent raise would cost the county about $550,000, Schultz said. Council members -- relieved that firefighters and deputy sheriffs have settled or are in the process -- had not been looking forward to holding impasse hearings.

"You try to avoid this like the plague," said Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle. "Setting salary is an administrative duty. It's our job to work with the administration and to work with unions."

But after the impasse hearing, council members must choose sides. They might have to make supplementary budget requests to fund the one-year deals.

Owens could veto the budget requests, though that move might carry negative political consequences.

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