Some on Council Balk at Raises in Union Contracts

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has signed off on union contracts that would provide most firefighters with a 28 percent pay increase over three years and enhance retirement benefits for some police officers and other government workers.

Leggett's negotiators say the changes are necessary to compete for talent and provide high-quality services in the high-cost Washington region. Critics contend that the deals are overly generous at a time when Leggett (D) has proposed budget cuts and the largest property tax rate increase in two decades to close a projected $297 million shortfall.

The labor agreements, which need the County Council's approval this spring, would cost taxpayers more than $40 million over three years.

Council member Phil Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg), who chairs the Public Safety Committee, called the contracts "unsustainable, unnecessary and unrelated to real-world economic conditions," and he urged his council colleagues to reject them.

"It's difficult, although necessary, for elected officials to occasionally say no. This is one of those years," he said.

Joseph Adler, who as the county's human resources director oversees labor negotiations, said Montgomery lags behind other jurisdictions in salaries.

"To get the best talent, we've got to be competitive," he said. "I realize if you take the numbers in isolation, they look like a lot, but even with the increases, we've not jumped to number one in this area."

John Sparks, president of the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association, said the county is playing catch-up for its 1,050 firefighters and paramedics. Rookie firefighters are paid $39,997, compared with $44,301 in the District, $40,784 in Prince George's County and $47,472 in Fairfax County. Among jurisdictions such as Montgomery with more than 500,000 people, the average salary nationally is $44,275 for starting firefighters.

Gino Renne, president of the county's Municipal and County Government Employees Organization, said that public safety salaries have lagged in Montgomery for some time and that the county is just beginning to address the issue.

Salaries and benefits for the county's 34,000 workers account for about 80 percent of the $4.3 billion budget blueprint for fiscal 2009.

As part of the contracts, the county would increase its contribution to the retirement accounts of more than half its general government workers from 6 to 8 percent of an employee's salary. The pensions of the longest-serving police officers would increase from 76 percent to 86 percent of their average pay for the final three years on the job.

Firefighter salaries would increase 4 percent in fiscal 2009, 4 percent the next year and 7 percent in fiscal 2011. In addition, most firefighters would continue to receive 3.5 percent annual step increases.

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