July 7, 2010

Leggett drops drug testing for fire fighters, offers more time off & tuition assistance

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett has agreed to give government employees more paid time off in exchange for forgoing pay raises and other items included their contracts. The renegotiated contracts, which still need approval by the County Council, include other provisions such as the elimination of random drug testing for firefighters and $135,000 in tuition assistance for police, the agreements show. Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At large) of North Bethesda said eliminating random drug and alcohol testing is "not appropriate" — especially for public safety employees.

"And I'm not likely to change my mind about that," she said.

Eliminating the drug testing would save the county about $35,000 annually. Leggett (D) has signed off on the renegotiated provisions. Leggett and the unions had to renegotiate terms after the council struck down pay raises and other items included in union contracts. A council committee will take up the new contracts Monday. Members of the county's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 35 would receive an additional 26 hours of paid leave under the agreement. The leave only would be used when it would not require the county to pay other employees overtime.

The police agreement, which had not yet been ratified by union members as of Tuesday, also calls for tuition assistance money beginning in fiscal 2012, according to Joseph Adler, the head of the county's Office of Human Resources. The program, which pays for county government employees to enroll in college courses and approved training programs for free, was discontinued in fiscal 2011 after it was revealed that some police officers were using tuition assistance money to pay for a program that offered deeply discounted weapons to those who enrolled.

The preliminary agreement caps tuition assistance spending among police at $135,000. Police previously had no limit on the amount of tuition assistance money they could receive.

"I think there's a real question of equity there," Trachtenberg said.

Renegotiated contracts for police officers are the only ones that provide for tuition assistance funding. FOP President Marc Zifcak said $135,000 is about the amount that members typically use to attend the courses they should be taking. Spending on the program only grew because the county's Office of Human Resources was approving courses that should have been denied. The FOP's preliminary agreement includes clarifying language specifying that the training courses must be taken at accredited colleges or universities or be chosen from an approved list of courses.

Zifcak said the FOP was under the impression since the program's start that only college courses were to be approved. Under Leggett's new agreement with members of the Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters Association, IAFF, Local 1664, AFL-CIO, some employees who did not receive step increases or cost-of-living pay increases will be given 48 hours of paid leave, and others will get a prorated number of hours of compensatory leave based on how many hours employees work in a year, the agreement states.

The agreement also abolishes random alcohol and drug testing that was to begin in fiscal 2011, which began July 1. The agreement states that firefighters will not be randomly tested in either fiscal 2011 or fiscal 2012. Adler said firefighters were granted more paid leave because their work days are typically 24 hours. Firefighters and emergency services personnel still could be tested for drugs and alcohol if they were suspected of being under the influence, he said. The provision only bans random testing. IAFF President John Sparks did not return a call for comment Tuesday. SOURCE: Gazette

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