One day in 1974 the city of Takoma Park woke up to find labor unrest at a very disturbing place -- the community's only fire station. Firefighters seeking improved ages and benefits were picketing outside their single-floor stone headquarters building and were taking only emergency calls.
The dispute, however, was quickly settled when Montgomery County stepped in and took control of firefighting operations and moved the station's employes onto the county's more generous and more costly retirement plan.
Six years later the transfer is still fresh in the minds of Montgomery County officials. They claim Takoma Park owes the county $205,200 to help cover the costs for midcareer enrollment for the firefighters into the pension plan, and has made no attempt to pay.
Yesterday, three years after the first bill was delivered to the city government, County Executive Charles Gilchrist decided to get tough. A curtly worded letter sent to Mayor Sam Abbott demanded to the city agree by Jan. 15 to payment with interest over five years or be taken to court.
It was the first time in memory that the county had threatened to sue a municipality inside its boundaries. Gilchrist's letter closed with a footnote of conciliation. "I sincerely hope the matter can be resolved without the need for litigation."
Mayor Abbott's response suggested he was caught unaware. "Since I was sworn in on the 15th of April [this year] I've never had any communications addressed to me on the subject," he said. "They can dun all they want." He declined to comment directly on the lawsuit challenge until he had studied the matter more closely.
Before 1974 the Takoma Park firefighters used the Maryland state pension scheme. Under it they had accumulated assets of $197,000. Montgomery County pension actuaries, looking at inflation and other future expectations, determined that an immediate input of $615,000 more would be needed to meet their program's larger retirement benefits.
Montgomery County Finance Director Al Gault displayed a June 27, 1974, agreement signed by the then Takoma Park mayor and Montgomery County executive. In it, Takoma Park undertook to pay, "not less than one-third nor more than $250,000 towards any accrued liability that may result from the transfer of employes. . . ."
One-third of $615,000 is $205,000, the amount the county is seeking.
An attorney for Takoma Park, however, said the city disputed the message the county used in arriving at the 615,000 figure. When the agreement was signed, the city expected its bill would not exceed $28,000 he said.
City officials concede paying the bill would be difficult. With interest payments, it would total $303,000 under the schedule proposed by the county, a sum equal to about 10 percent of the city's annual budget.
But to Mayor Abbott, the formen community organizer, the issue is larger than ability to pay. He sees the bill as yet another example of Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- the city straddles their border -- unfairly taking money from his tax-payers.
This year the municipality is spending $821,000 to run its own police force, he said, thereby saving the two counties the cost of fielding officers there. Yet Montgomery County has provided only $85,000 in reimbursement for police, and Prince George's has given nothing, he said.
County taxes earmarked for park and planning commisssions are another sore point. He estimates that his city's people paid $363,000 to these agencies, which spent not more than $140,000 in the city. "About a quarter of a million dollars of Takoma Park money was not spent in our city."