Neutral arbitrator on Tuesday sided with Anne Arundel County firefighters, awarding them the contract they requested over the objections of county negotiators.
The two-year agreement puts firefighters and emergency medical technicians back on a schedule of regular pay increases for the first time in more than a decade, a move union officials said would begin to address wage stagnation during the recession.
“We’ve taken a beating over the years,” said Joe Addivinola, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1563. “We’ve lost a lot of members going to other jurisdictions for higher pay.”
Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Schuh, said Schuh disagreed with the decision, “but will ensure we follow it.”
The union’s proposal brings back a “step and grade” scale that ties employee salaries to years of experience, similar to the system county teachers and police officers use. As firefighters move up the scale, they can theoretically expect to see steady raises — and sometimes larger ones when they move up a grade — though the increases are still subject to negotiation each time a contract expires.
Mid-level firefighters who experienced salary freezes through the economic downturn will now see their pay brought up to the amount recommended by the scale. The raise will be implemented over a two-year period, with half of the gap made up in fiscal 2017 and the other half fulfilled in fiscal 2018.
In all, the county estimates the deal will cost nearly $2.7 million, with about $1.8 million budgeted next fiscal year. Union officials had predicted a lower impact of nearly $880,000 in fiscal 2017 and $718,000 in fiscal 2018, but those estimates incorporated savings as high-paid employees retire, which county administrators said they have already taken into account in their current budget proposal.
The county’s offer, a one-year deal priced at $1.3 million, would have instead awarded a 3 percent merit increase for all employees in fiscal 2017.
Anne Arundel negotiators argued the union’s proposal amounted to a major structural change that would be difficult to support with the county’s revenue, which is limited by low income tax rates and a cap on the property tax.
They also noted county firefighters’ wages have increased by 15.9 percent over the past five years and rank in the middle when compared with other jurisdictions in the Baltimore/Towson metropolitan area.
But in his strongly worded decision, arbitrator M. David Vaughn said the county had “short changed (sic) its younger and mid-level Firefighters relative to their predecessors, relative to the expectations of Firefighters when they joined the Department and relative to similarly situated Firefighters in comparable jurisdictions …”
“Notwithstanding the solid County-level economic conditions,” Vaughn wrote, “the evidence establishes that the County has painted itself into a corner through insistence on reductions in (an) already lower than average piggyback income tax rate and property tax cap. These voter-driven policies to push taxes even lower do not constitute an inability to pay the cost of the Union’s proposal.”
The fire department has used a “min/max” system since 2004, which does not include a salary schedule and instead relies on merit and cost-of-living increases to raise wages. The union traded step increases then for a county commitment to reduce working hours for its employees, bringing a firefighter’s work week down from 48 hours to 42 hours.
County negotiators argued it wasn’t fair for the union to walk back on that agreement by maintaining fewer working hours but returning to a step schedule.
Union officials countered — and Vaughn agreed — that the county had never fulfilled its end of the bargain, which was to hire an additional 100-member platoon that would help ease demands on the rest of the department.
Addivinola said the department has seen a high turnover rate in recent years. Out of a workforce of about 800 firefighters, he estimated, about 100 have left over the last five years for neighboring jurisdictions with higher pay, such as the City of Annapolis and Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
That’s meant a drain on the department’s experienced employees, he said, noting 83 percent of the union’s membership has 16 years of experience or less.
“Obviously, larger staffing helps with response time,” Addivinola said, “but having more experience out there also helps with the safety of your residents.”
Schuh has promised to take steps to raise pay for public employees. Last year, the public safety unions received a 3 percent increase, while other county employees saw a 2 percent raise.
“We try very hard to make sure that all of our public employees … are paid fairly,” he said at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in January. “As revenues rise, my goal will be to continue to increase salaries.” At the time, Schuh said starting salaries should be a particular focus.
But his administration could not reach an agreement with the firefighters’ union, the largest public safety union in the county with more than 1,000 members. The impasse triggered the arbitration process, and both parties attended hearings in April. By law, the arbitrator is required to choose one party’s final offer in its entirety, and the county is bound to adhere to that decision.
The firefighters’ union has gone to arbitration the past three years. Last year, an arbitrator decided in the county’s favor.
With Tuesday’s decision, 11 of Anne Arundel’s 12 unions have now reached an agreement with the county. The Fraternal Order of Police, the second largest public safety union, is still in arbitration.
Council members, who are analyzing Schuh’s budget proposal, which was introduced May 2, said they would look for a supplemental budget from Schuh to determine how to proceed.
Councilman John Grasso, R-Glen Burnie, said he hoped the cost could be covered by the county’s contingency fund, which totals about $9 million in Schuh’s fiscal 2017 proposal.
“We got money for contingency so hopefully that doesn’t exceed the contingency pot because if it doesn’t somebody’s not going to be happy,” he said. “If they’re not happy, you know who I’m going to blame? The fire department.”
Councilman Jerry Walker, R-Crofton, noted that costs of snow removal alone drained this year’s contingency fund of $5 million.
“The county’s obligated to fund it, so how it gets funded is up to the county executive now,” he said. “I know public safety folks work hard for the money they have and they deserve to get what they negotiated.”
Councilman Chris Trumbauer, D-Annapolis, said a supplemental budget would be “instructive.”
“$1.7 million is not small change, but in the grand scheme of the budget, once we get an idea of some of the auditor’s recommendations, I’m confident we’ll be able to fund it without too much damage,” he said. “But I’d like to see how the administration proposes to fund it.”
The council is scheduled to take a final vote on the budget on June 15.
This story updates the amount budgeted for the county’s contingency reserve, which is closer to $9 million.