Firefighters to Defer Cost-of-Living Raises
Friday, January 23, 2009
Leaders of Montgomery County's firefighters union announced yesterday that they have agreed to at least $8 million in wage concessions to help the county close a $450 million budget gap, though a county spokesman said the deal is not final.
If the plan is ratified by the 1,000-member union, the firefighters would be the second county labor group to trim a contract recently negotiated with county officials. Late last year, county teachers and other school employees agreed to give up a 5 percent cost-of-living raise, saving the school system $89 million.
John Sparks, president of Local 1664 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which also represents paramedics, said the projected givebacks would cost the typical firefighter about $8,000 to $9,000 in lost pay increases over the next two years. He said annual pay averages between $50,000 and $60,000.
The concessions include giving up a negotiated bonus for working a holiday and delaying a 4 percent cost-of-living increase this year and a 3.5 percent cost-of-living increase next year.
"We actually went beyond what the county was seeking," Sparks said.
If the economy improves, the union will try to speed up the timetable for the raises, Sparks said, but he did not hold out a lot of hope. "These are tough times," he said.
About 40 percent of the firefighters would still get step pay increases, he said. But firefighters who have reached the top of the pay scale, which generally takes about 15 years, would not receive a raise until the cost-of-living increases kick in.
Sparks said he decided to announce the deal, reached Jan. 16, after waiting several days for an announcement from County Executive Isiah Leggett (D). Sparks said he went ahead with his announcement after receiving questions from his membership and from the media.
Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield called Sparks's announcement "in error."
"We have not finalized an agreement with the firefighters. There are some outstanding legal issues that we need to resolve," Lacefield said. "I did not expect to get a release like that across my desk this morning. " He declined to be more specific.
Sparks said he thought that Lacefield was referring to routine scrutiny by the county attorney's office. He said that he knew of nothing that might derail the agreement.
County unions representing police and other government workers are in negotiations over pay concessions.
The county's projected budget gap, which is about 12 percent of the county's more than $4 billion budget, mirrors a shortfall the county confronted in 2003. That year, the council delayed raises for county workers for several months and increased a variety of taxes, including those on income, energy and property.
Leggett and the County Council have less flexibility this year, having sworn off any moves that would require exceeding the county limit on property tax revenue, as they did last spring.
The firefighters are in the first year of a three-year agreement. The contract, approved by the Leggett administration in April and by the County Council in May, brought starting pay for rookie firefighters to $40,797 a year, the lowest in the Washington region.
Sparks said starting pay is $44,302 in the District, $40,848 in Prince George's County, $47,472 in Fairfax County, $44,637 in Arlington County and $43,618 in Alexandria. Among jurisdictions with more than 500,000 residents, the national average is $44,275 a year for starting firefighters, he said.