Nearly a year after voters approved changes to the way Baltimore County resolves labor disputes with many of its public employees, the county remains at odds with unions over how and when those changes will be carried out.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has proposed a measure that his administration says would put voters' wishes into law at a reasonable cost to taxpayers. But labor leaders say it does not give workers the rights that they should have under last year's referendum.
At issue is the practice of binding arbitration, in which an independent third party is given final say on a resolution when the county and unions reach an impasse in negotiations over salaries, pensions or other issues.
"We believe as written, [the Kamenetz proposal] is essentially unusable," said John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, adding that the bill would extend rights unevenly to different classes of workers. "It's unnecessarily restrictive."
County police and firefighters have had the right to binding arbitration for nearly a decade, and voters last year overwhelmingly supported expanding it to more than 2,500 "general" county government employees — including office workers, corrections officers, nurses and 911 dispatchers.
Kamenetz doesn't want the new policy to take effect until 2014, when officials hope the economy will have improved, and he wants to exclude employment conditions from the issues that can be decided by binding arbitration. An arbitrator can rule on those issues in negotiations with police and firefighters.
"We think it's very reasonable to move forward with the legislation, but to do so in a way that allows the county economy to recover," said Don Mohler, Kamenetz's chief of staff. "For us, it's about public safety and fiscal responsibility. We're not willing to cede those issues to a third-party arbiter."
Ripley said he's concerned about the bill's effective date and the fact that it wouldn't apply to disputes about terms of employment.
When voters approved last year's referendum, Ripley contends, they sent a message that they want general employees to have the same type of binding arbitration that police and firefighters have.
All county employees should be able to use binding arbitration for terms of employment, said Michael Spiller, a staff representative with AFT Maryland, the union with which Ripley's group and the Baltimore County Federation of Public Health Nurses are affiliated.
"When we drafted the referendum," Spiller said, "we drafted it with the intention of getting all public employees on the same playing field."
County firefighters have never used binding arbitration, while police have used it twice, county spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said.
Mohler said the county executive thinks it would be "irresponsible" to grant binding arbitration to public safety employees for terms and conditions of employment. In that scenario, he said, the arbiter could make decisions on issues such as how many people work per shift at the county 911 center.
"These are life-and-death decisions," Mohler said. "You can't make those kinds of decisions subject to the whims of a third-party arbiter."
Ripley said arbitration is a fair way to resolve disputes, and is not a guaranteed win for unions.
"Arbitration's not a dirty word," Ripley said. "It works all over the place. It's in new-home agreements, new-car agreements."
The County Council introduced a bill to authorize binding arbitration last week. Council members are set to discuss the measure at an Oct. 11 work session, with a final vote scheduled for Oct. 17.
Council Chairman John Olszewski Sr. believes the county should delay the changes until 2014, even though he backs binding arbitration for government workers and says he has supported unions throughout his career.
"It's just that when I'm an elected official, I have to look at the bigger picture," said Olszewski, a Dundalk Democrat. "The economy is bad."
But Councilman David Marks, a Perry Hall Republican, said he and some council colleagues think 2014 is too late. "There's a sentiment that voters approved this — it should be authorized sooner rather than later," he said.
Marks said council members have a responsibility to carry out the voters' will.
"I'm a Republican councilman, and I tell my fellow Republicans that even if you disagree with binding arbitration, it's hard to argue with the fact that 70 percent of Baltimore County voters supported this initiative," he said.
The council's only other Republican, Todd Huff, said he supports binding arbitration for county employees, but added that he hasn't studied details of the new bill yet.