Nearly 2,000 Harford County government employees received a bonus last month, but, time is running out for several thousand educators whose union has rejected County Executive David R. Craig's one-time offer.

The dispute pits Craig, who is term-limited and considering a run for higher office, against the county's most powerful and largest union, of which he was once a member. Craig and leaders of the Harford County Education Association say they are still trying to resolve the impasse that has put a damper on his much publicized plan to distribute $11 million from a budget surplus among local employees.

The parties remain far apart, and Craig is threatening to pull the $2.2 million proposal for teachers off the table altogether.

"The union said it has to renegotiate, which should be relatively simple," he said. "They had better do the negotiating before March 1. After that, the money will go back into the general fund surplus."

Eight of the nine unions representing the county employees readily accepted a $1,250 bonus per worker. But the decision by the HCEA, which represents 3,200 teachers, is keeping their share of the package in limbo.

Much of the debate has been about procedure — teachers argue that the bonus should have been run by the union and school board. But many educators are still stinging over a dispute over this year's budget, which Craig proposed without a requested pay raise for teachers.

Union members say that the fact that the county ended the fiscal year with a $32 million budget cushion shows that there was enough money to include the raises — and for some, a one-time bonus is not enough.

"I am disappointed that a bonus was offered instead of using the large surplus of $32 million to fully fund the educational needs of Harford County Public Schools," said Mark A. Gross, a middle school math teacher for seven years.

As proposed, the bonus would be split into two payments in December and June, for each county employee, including those in the sheriff's department, schools, libraries and in the Circuit Court and state's attorney's office. Funding would come from the 2012 fiscal year surplus, with remaining money allocated to one-time capital projects and the rainy day fund.

The County Council approved the bonus with one amendment, which council members said the teachers union requested.

"They wanted the wording changed from bonus to payment," said Councilman James V. McMahan, a Republican who represents the Bel Air area. "None of us saw any problem with the amendment but we later realized we were duped."

The change could have bolstered HCEA's efforts to fund a pay raise next year, McMahan said. Craig vetoed the teachers' bonus earlier this month and the council did not override the veto.

"This bonus was not intended to be a leverage point for any one group of county employees," McMahan said. "The bonus is still in limbo. If they come back and agree it's a one-time bonus, that is all we ask."

Craig said the budget cannot sustain pay raises, given the sluggish economy and the uncertainty of revenue projections. No one can predict that FY13 will yield another surplus for the county.

"I would love to authorize a pay raise, but this is one-time money," Craig said. "We can only spend it this year. We can't lock in $11 million additional for salaries next year. If we don't have the funds, we might have to cut jobs as a result. Everyone has to live with this reality."

Union leaders argue that Craig, who taught in the county for 34 years, failed to follow established procedures that require any salary or stipend offer to come from the Board of Education after labor negotiations.

"This is not a question of money," said Randall Cerveny, association president. "It is a question of process. There are laws governing such payments. The offer had to come through the Board of Education, not from the county executive."

Failure to follow policy undermines the union's right to collective bargaining, Cerveny said.

County spokesman Ben Lloyd said the administration is willing to go through the school board, but first wants an agreement that the payment is one-time-only. Cerveny said union leadership would be willing to consider such an agreement.

Chet H. Elder, retired from the Maryland State Teachers Association, who frequently negotiated with county government on behalf of Harford's teachers, said eight other unions did not see the bonus as undermining their bargaining ability. Dozens of disheartened teachers called him about the bonus issue, he said. He placed the blame squarely on HCEA's leadership.

"Who in his right mind would deny a Christmas bonus to his dues-paying members?" Elder said "As a union leader, you do whatever you can to put money in the pockets of your members."

Teachers, like other workers in the county, have not received raises for three years, but they were not subjected to the furlough days that other county employees endured during the recession. Craig said the bonus was a thank-you for service during trying economic times.

He and council members have said they have heard from many teachers who need the bonus and disagree with HCEA. Craig said the offer still stands and added he hopes the union can successfully negotiate an acceptance. Cerveny said he, too, is trying to resolve the situation.

"The union better work this out," Craig said. "There are more teachers upset with the union than with me."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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