Montgomery Executive Can Deny Funds for Firefighter Raises, Administrator Says

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 2009

A labor relations referee has sided with Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett in his dispute with firefighters over pay raises, effectively leaving Leggett's $4.42 billion spending plan intact.

The labor administrator ruled Saturday that Leggett's decision not to fund cost-of-living raises for the budget year that begins July 1 was within his power as executive. It was an important victory for Leggett (D) as he sells his budget blueprint to the County Council, although an appeal is possible.

John Sparks, president of the Montgomery County Career Firefighters Association, who had challenged Leggett's action, said he will review options with the union's attorneys.

When Leggett released his budget plan March 16, he recommended eliminating 400 government jobs, scaling back bus service and wiping out cost-of-living raises for county employees. Teachers, police officers and general government workers had agreed to forgo planned raises to help close a projected shortfall of more than $500 million.

But Sparks protested Leggett's decision not to fund 4 percent raises for firefighters without renegotiating their contract. In negotiations, firefighters said they were willing to give up certain holiday pay benefits and defer, but not forgo, the raises, to save about $7 million.

Leggett, however, said he worried that the firefighters' offer to defer -- instead of give up -- the raises would have unraveled deals cut with other unions that trim a total of $125 million in county spending. Leggett's decision not to fund the firefighters' contracted raises was a calculated risk at a time of rapidly declining revenue from income and real estate taxes.

"Normally we do honor our collective bargaining agreements, but the executive was in a crisis situation," County Attorney Leon Rodriguez said. Labor relations administrator Andrew M. Strongin agreed, writing that the executive's power and responsibility to propose a balanced budget trumps the legal requirement that he recommend full funding for labor agreements.

Strongin did not dispute the union's contention that the bargaining law passed by the council mandates funding of labor contracts. But he wrote that the law is subordinate to the county's charter and that the council cannot "limit the executive's discretion in proposing the operating budget." The union can appeal to the Circuit Court or seek a temporary restraining order.

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