Montgomery County firefighters in line for 19.5 percent raise

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Local,Maryland,Kate Jacobson,Montgomery County

Cash-strapped Montgomery County could be shelling out almost $75 million in union pay raises over the next two years if the County Council approves a trio of labor contracts that call for double-digit pay increases.

The highest raise would go to the county's firefighter union, which would be a 19.5 percent raise over two years as part of a new labor agreement reached by the union and County Executive Ike Leggett.

The County Council is expected to vote on the proposed hikes next month. Most council members agree raises are deserved, but they're still evaluating whether the deal will set a precedent for future pay increases.

"The question is, this is year one after a few rough years," said Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large. "But what does year two, three or four look like?"

One member, however, is starkly against them.

"I do not support the full increase," Councilman Phil Andrews, D-Gaithersburg/Rockville, told members of Fire and Rescue Service. He said a 12 to 13 percent increase over two years was more sustainable for the county and that when the contracts came in front of council later this spring, he would not be voting for them.

The raises are part of Leggett's proposed $4.8 billion budget. Under the plan, property taxes would rise about $80 for the average homeowner, and the county's energy tax would be left in tact.

The Fire and Rescue Service budget, which increased 6.6 percent from fiscal 2013 to $218.6 million in fiscal 2014, includes about $4.9 million just for employee compensation increases. That will affect about 1,000 firefighters within the county's fire union.

County union workers would get a 13.5 percent raise, and members of the police union would get a 14.7 percent raise during the next two years.

Montgomery County Fire Chief Richard Bowers said the increase is warranted. All county employees have had to endure a four-year freeze on raises while prices continued to rise, and he said the county needs to invest in its workforce if it wants to keep the high standard of service its residents expect.

County spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Leggett understands county employees haven't seen a raise in years. He said while employees received no increases, the county saved $269 million.

But Andrews wonders if the $75 million price tag for two years is too high.

"I'm not opposed to pay raises," Andrews said. "But what the county executive is proposing is excessive. That will be difficult to maintain."

Joan Fidler, president of the Montgomery County Taxpayers League, agrees. She said she supports raises, as county employees have had to do without, but questions the cost.

"I think the pay raises are too high, given the fact that we're still not out of the recession," she said.

Andrews said this proposal reflects the kind of prerecession spending that hurt the county in the first place. Since 2008, the county has worked to close $2.7 billion in budget shortfalls.

"This is very reminiscent -- the pay increases -- the size of them before the recession that were not only unsustainable but were unaffordable," he said.

kjacobson@washingtonexaminer.com

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