Hefty hike for police is O'Malley's gamble


BALTIMORE CITY'S police have been underpaid for so long that Mayor Martin O'Malley's promise of a hefty pay raise must be manna from heaven for officers. Some top veterans could expect a 33-percent salary hike under the proposed three-year contract.

With other city unions working without contracts, though, news about the officers' pending pact is sure to complicate labor negotiations. Some over-optimistic hopes also are certain to be dashed: Mayor O'Malley has made it clear he regards the major police salary revision as an overdue adjustment that other municipal employees should not expect to receive.

The city's unionized work force can be divided into roughly two categories. Lumped together with the police have been the firefighters, who years ago won an equal treatment clause in binding arbitration. The second category includes all the other unionized employees, who cannot claim parity.

Since he came to office in December, Mayor O'Malley has made it clear that he hopes to end parity between police and firefighters' salaries. City lawyers are pursuing the matter in courts.

Mr. O'Malley's argument is that while both police and firefighters perform taxing and dangerous duties, they should not be treated identically because the work is not identical. One indication is that the city has a surplus of applicants for fire-fighting positions, while police vacancies are difficult to fill.

A year ago, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger separated the pay scales of police and firefighters in order to pay officers more. The police officers won an additional sweetener in their four-year contract: After two years, negotiations can be reopened if their pay has not kept pace with police salaries region-wide. Thus, what happens in the city will be observed carefully in the county, too.

Bringing Baltimore's out-of-control homicide rate down was Mr. O'Malley's chief campaign promise. The police salary revision is part of that strategy. It is fully justified, particularly in light of recent scheduling changes that make it more difficult for officers to hold second jobs. But if Mr. O'Malley's gamble does not succeed and he has to extend the pay increase to city firefighters, too, the mayor could spark a fiscal crisis.

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