Talks end on city fire pacts

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Shortly after a midnight deadline, Baltimore's two firefighters unions grudgingly agreed yesterday to tentative two-year contracts with the city that nearly triple their health care costs and offer no pay raise in the first year.

Union and city officials reached the agreement after two months of talks and a final 14 1/2 -hour negotiating session.

"We're coming off the best contract we ever had and we're going to the worst contract we've ever had," said Steve Fugate, president of the Fire Officers Union Local 964. "As bad as it is, we've done the best we can do."

Fugate and other union officials will not discuss the agreement's details until Thursday, when the 1,600 members of the officers union and the Baltimore Firefighters Local 734 plan to vote on the offer. A "no" vote would send negotiations into binding arbitration.

City officials would not comment yesterday on the contract.

The tentative agreement is the first in a negotiating season when all city union contracts - which expire June 30 - are up for renewal. Mayor Martin O'Malley has warned that city employees must pay more for health insurance if the city is to avoid dire financial consequences that other officials said could lead to layoffs.

"We didn't limit the damage as much as we would have liked to," Fugate said. "And now that damage will spread to the other bargaining units that can least afford it."

Sources said the tentative offer with firefighters nearly triples the premiums they pay for health care. They now pay 5.8 percent of the cost of their health insurance. The new rate would be less than the 20 percent the city was proposing, sources said. The deal also offers no pay raise in the first year, starting July 1, but permits wage negotiations in the second.

Next up for the city are contract talks with nonuniformed city workers and finally, police. "We're in a constant struggle to squeeze every dime we can," O'Malley said Friday.

Union officials say they accepted meager pay raises in the past and are reluctant to ask their rank-and-file members to make concessions on insurance.

"What the mayor wants is too extreme," said Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union Local 44. "There has to be a medium."

The city said its health care costs are increasing 13 percent annually and that wages and benefits make up 51 percent of the city's general fund.

Currently, union employees pay minimal health insurance premiums and pay no deductibles for visits to physicians. The city wants them to pay more in premiums, start paying deductibles for physician visits and double their co-payments for prescription drugs.

Two weeks ago, the mayor imposed those increases for the city's 12,000 retirees and 2,000 nonunion employees, including himself.

But even that upset union leaders who represent 11,000 workers. They felt O'Malley was trying to negotiate in the media.

"Our membership is not happy with him," Middleton said.

A union that has had little to complain about, though, is the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. The union agreed three years ago for members to pay 10 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums in exchange for at least a 27 percent pay raise over three years - triple to four times what nonuniformed workers received.

O'Malley has said that the largesse regarding police reflects his priority of reducing crime by ending the exodus of officers who were leaving for better-paying jobs.

FOP President Daniel Fickus said the better pay has worked and has even lured officers back. O'Malley said the strategy has helped Baltimore achieve its nation-leading 30 percent reduction in violent crime.

Scrutiny for contracts

The Police Department's projected $14.3 million in overspending for this fiscal year, ending June 30, has attracted increased scrutiny for those police contracts.

"Compounding these costs are layoffs [elsewhere], cuts in parks, recreation and library services," Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said recently.

At budget hearings last month, Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young said firefighters and civilian city workers were forced to endure cuts while the Police Department "gets a $14 million blank check."

James Carroll, president of the City Union of Baltimore, which represents blue-collar workers, said the disparity in pay has reduced his membership to "second-class citizens."

"We got a few hundred dollars for raises last year," Carroll said. "We knew the city didn't have much money so we worked with them."

Other unions have been angered as well, including those representing firefighters and officers. O'Malley has closed fire stations and his administration has been embroiled in contentious labor disputes with those unions. The Fire Department implemented a policy awarding compensatory time, instead of money, for every other overtime shift. That battle had been in arbitration, but the city will pay back more than $2 million in overtime next fiscal year if the tentative contract is approved.

"He doesn't listen to workers," Middleton said. "He listens to businesses."

'It's not personal'

When O'Malley took office, he asked two business groups, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the President's Roundtable, to recommend ways to save money. Some of those suggestions involved awarding private contractors work that city union employees had performed.

"It's not personal," O'Malley said. "This is an administration that is not born of patronage politics but is born of the pledge of bringing higher performance to city government."

City officials said the outsourcing has saved the city nearly $9 million.

The unions have demonstrated the ability to express their dissatisfaction with the city administration at the polls. Last year, in retaliation for the mayor's policies toward city workers, city unions and neighborhood activists worked to pass a resolution that eliminates four seats from the City Council. O'Malley opposed the change.

While many city union leaders have been unhappy with O'Malley and are threatening to oppose his future political moves, labor officials outside the public sector give him high marks.

James Correll, president of the Baltimore Building & Construction Trades Council, called O'Malley the best mayor he has seen.

"He's hard-headed sometimes," Correll said, "but he's determined to make a difference."

Working with the Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 486, O'Malley did just that. This year, the mayor persuaded Local 486 to fix broken showers at several city high schools - at no cost to the city.

Dennis Metz of the Seafarers International Union said his group would support O'Malley for whatever office he seeks. Last year, O'Malley helped Metz stave off layoffs at an Inner Harbor towboat company by writing letters in support of his union.

O'Malley has said he is confident organized labor will back him in future elections despite current bitterness with city unions.

"I am here because I believe we can turn Baltimore around," he said. "To do that, you have to be willing to make some very difficult decisions."

Charles "Boots" Buttiglieri, assistant to the president of the Baltimore AFL-CIO, said making such decisions exposes every mayor to criticism of city workers, but that O'Malley has done a better job than most at considering their concerns.

Still, Buttiglieri said, "It's not hard to figure out that O'Malley has other political aspirations. ... The time will come when he will want to run for something else, and as a Democrat in this state it's good to have labor's backing."

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