Accompanied by a county police sergeant, a firefighter and a 911 dispatcher, Howard County Executive James N. Robey visited students at the private Young School in Guilford last week as part of the school's "Random Acts of Kindness" curriculum. The county employees described for students the vital public services they provide.
But Robey's kindness ranking with county workers may depend on whether the budget he proposes next month contains money for a cost-of-living pay raise for police, firefighters, dispatchers, teachers and other employees - what would be their first in two years.
"Obviously, they went without salary increases last year," he said before his school appearance Tuesday, indicating his acute understanding of their expectations.
But with state and local tax increases looming and the General Assembly contemplating more cuts, "everything is on hold until we see what the legislature is doing," Robey added.
Budget requests for the fiscal year starting July 1 are more than $50 million more than anticipated new county revenue, so Robey, a career civil servant, is in a bind, he has said. Union negotiations with the county are under way, but money has yet to be discussed, according to labor leaders.
County union members understand the situation, their leaders said, but the workers expect some kind of raise, too, especially to keep police, 911 employees and teachers who may be lured away by higher salaries elsewhere.
"You can't go two years without a pay raise. The cost of living's gone up. Gasoline has gone up. Our calls for service [last year] went up 10,000 calls. What price do you put on public safety?" asked James F. Fitzgerald, president of the Howard County Police Officers Association, Local 86, representing about 330 officers who strongly backed Robey for re-election last year.
The county's firefighters are restive, too.
"The mood [among members] is not good," said Michael B. Rund, president of the Howard County Professional Firefighters Local 2000, whose 287 firefighters, like the police, had to deal with post-Sept. 11 terrorist scares and the sniper shootings around Washington last fall, only to hear some Howard County legislators this year disdain their need for a new public safety training facility in their home county.
"I think they expect to get a raise, but we're also going to work with the county executive," Rund said.
The 40 county emergency dispatchers feel similarly, said Debbie Thrower, president of Local 107 of the International Union of Police Officers.
"We're hoping to get something. That's what we're banking on for retention," she said, referring to the difficulty Howard County has had keeping people in vital jobs. Starting pay is $27,300, she said.
Dale R. Chase, president of the 260-member Local 3065 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, noted that his members were the ones driving those big county snowplows through the winter's record storms.
His members worry, as they emerge from a three-year contract that locked in health insurance rates, that the county will want the workers to pay more for that benefit.
"My goal is to make sure we don't come out with negative money," he said, noting that Howard is considered one of the wealthiest counties in the nation.
The largest labor group, the teachers and school employees represented by the Howard County Education Association, say they are confident they will get the 4 percent pay raise negotiated last year with the school board.
"I expect the board to fully fund the negotiated agreement," said Joe Staub, president of the 5,500-member Howard County Education Association.
Teachers' agreements are always tricky, however, since they negotiate with the school board - which does not control the money supply. Howard County executives have generally honored board contracts - except in 1991 when then-Executive Charles I. Ecker did not honor a negotiated 6 percent raise in the midst of the last big recession.
If the board gets enough money to pay for the $18 million in raises, it seems that Staub's faith is justified.
"In my mind, that's sacred," said Sandra H. French, the school board chairman. "I can't go back on my word."
Still, entering the final three weeks of preparing a budget proposal, Robey is in a tough spot.
Budget requests, led by the $38 million more the school board alone wants, are sharply higher than the $23.4 million in new revenue expected, and things could get worse as state politicians in Annapolis move to plug fiscal holes.
Robey recently floated potential local tax increases that could cost up to $955 more a year in income and property taxes for a family with a $200,000 home and a net income of $100,000.
But union leaders and County Council members are waiting patiently - and with hope.
"I put my faith in the executive for now to negotiate," said council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.
"We're in hopes that County Executive Robey is going to be able to do the right thing," Chase said.