The Anne Arundel County Council played referee yesterday as the county and the union representing about 1,000 blue-collar county workers jousted over whether those employees should receive pay raises next year of 2 percent or 4.6 percent.
By Wednesday, the council is expected to make a recommendation aimed at resolving the contract stalemate. An independent fact-finder has sided with the union, calling its request reasonable and affordable.
But even if the council supports the union's demand, it will be up to County Executive Janet S. Owens to allocate the money in a supplemental budget. Not only does she favor the smaller wage increase, but she has said she does not want to offer a supplemental budget this year.
Either way, the equipment operators, 911 dispatchers and others who make up the diverse union will see a far smaller bump in their paychecks than some county employees.
About 500 firefighters and paramedics will vote next week on a three-year contract that will increase their pay by 19 percent over that span, including longevity pay adjustments, according to participants at yesterday's impasse hearing.
The county's police officers previously approved a three-year pact that will mean a 15 percent raise next year alone, counting both a 7 percent wage increase and changes to the pay scale. Their pay will rise an additional 5 percent in the contract's second and third years.
Other bargaining units have reached agreements more lucrative than the county's offer to blue-collar workers.
"Where does that leave us? At the bottom of the heap," said lawyer F. J. Collins, representing workers in Local 582 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "That is simply not acceptable."
The county disputes claims by the union that Anne Arundel's blue-collar workers earn less than those in neighboring counties.
"They are paid better than their counterparts," said the county's expert witness, Charles W. de Seve, president of American Economics Group in Washington. "They don't need catch-up."
But in a 34-page analysis, fact-finder Ira F. Jaffe of Potomac called that argument "unpersuasive." Salaries for union members range from $19,594 to $40,082 per year.
Under the union's proposal, wages would rise 2 percent across the board. In addition, the pay scale would be modified so that workers would receive an average 2.6 percent de facto increase, though individual raises would vary. The county agrees with revamping the pay scale, but took it off the table after contract talks stalled.
Jaffe also brushed aside the county's concern that, despite the recent good economy, a downturn could batter its finances.
"In sum, the climate is as favorable as it has been in many years in terms of availability of funds to implement wage and benefit improvements," Jaffe wrote.
He added: "If wage adjustments are denied due to inability to pay in poor times and also denied in good times on the theory that one cannot know that the present good times will continue in perpetuity, one can never grant increases in wages."
Both sides agree that it would cost the county $1.265 million next year to implement the union's proposal and $550,000 to award a 2-percent raise. Owens has proposed an operating budget of $825.7 million operating budget, a 7.6 percent overall increase.
"There is the ability to pay; it is a question of willingness," Collins said. He called the difference between the offers "a drop in the bucket."
De Seve said there was a practical reason why some other groups of county workers were given more generous contracts.
"You had police leaving," he said. "You had to raise pay in order to keep it competitive."
But the county has had no trouble recruiting blue-collar workers, de Seve said, and raising their pay will not improve retention rates for jobs that traditionally have high turnover. He also has recommended separately addressing the issue of some blue-collar employees being paid relatively little.
"These are reclassification issues, not something you fix by raising overall wages," he said.
The union also opposes the county's intention to "reset the clock" on merit raises as of July 1. Some workers have been waiting two years for those increases, Collins said, and they would have to wait two more years if the cost-cutting measure is implemented.