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Public safety pacts in question

The Baltimore Sun

The Howard County Council is exploring whether it has the power to change costly contracts that County Executive Ken Ulman recently negotiated with the county's public safety unions.

The fire department's contract, for instance, includes a 6 percent raise every year for four years. The police force's two-year contract includes a 5 percent raise each year, take-home patrol cars for officers who live outside the county and other raises for more experienced officers.

Last month, more than 65 nonunion workers signed petitions protesting the "fundamental unfairness" of Ulman's pay proposals, which included a 3 percent raise for general employees.

Council Chairman Calvin Ball characterized the council's questions during a meeting Monday as an effort to understand the council's "role and responsibilities." This is the council's first round of negotiations with the county's public safety unions. All of the members were elected to the board for the first time in November.

"We want to make sure we're doing the right thing," he said. "Just because councils before us didn't look at this doesn't mean we're not going to."

The council is expected to discuss the contracts at a work session Tuesday.

During the briefing Monday, Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, asked whether the county had an escape clause should the economy tank and it not be able to meet its long-term obligations to firefighters. A staff member did not have an answer for Sigaty but said that she would find someone who did.

The council has the power to reject key portions of the fire and police contracts, including pay and retirement packages, before they are signed. However, if it does so, the entire agreement is open to renegotiation. Such rejection is rare.

In 1997, the council's Republican majority killed a retirement package for police and fire unions after 20 years of service. After sending the labor contract back to the bargaining table, then-County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, reached an agreement with the fire union for a pension that required 25 years of service.

The police union, however, declared contract negotiations dead until after the 1998 elections. A 1997 Sun article reported it as "the nastiest labor dispute in the county's history."

"I always felt that whatever was negotiated, I wanted to do my very best to ensure passage of it," said former council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a member of the House of Delegates who served on the County Council from 1998 to 2006. "Unless I found something extraordinarily out of whack, and I did not over the course of my eight years."

However, Guzzone and Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald, a former union president, said the length of the fire department's contract and the size of the raises were unprecedented.

Guzzone pointed out that by negotiating a longer contract with firefighters, Ulman avoids the impact of binding arbitration for four years.

Voters decided last year to permit binding arbitration in Howard County.

Under binding arbitration, when the county and a union reach an impasse, the decision of an arbitrator is final. The county executive can ignore such decisions now.

The firefighters union has submitted a binding arbitration proposal -- which must be approved by the County Council -- to lawyers for the county, said Richard Ruehl, the union's president.

The proposal forces an arbitrator to pick between the union's position and the executive's. The arbitrator cannot seek a middle ground. The council, however, can craft its own rules.

Howard County firefighters have the highest starting salaries among departments in five neighboring counties and the District of Columbia. However, over time, other counties' salaries leap frog Howard's, leaving veterans at a disadvantage, Ruehl said.

As for police, rookies in Baltimore County earn more than those in Howard, but future recruits will have a weaker benefits packages in Baltimore County.

Council member Greg Fox, the board's only Republican, who represents the rural western portion of the county, said during budget hearings that the county is on uncertain financial footing in coming years as the state faces a $1.5 billion shortfall. Funds to local governments are expected to be cut.

In the early 1990s, the county and school board rejected a 6 percent raise included in a signed contract with teachers. The country was in a recession, and the county in a fiscal crisis. During that period, Ecker and the council raised the property tax rate by 14 cents.


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