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Aberdeen / Havre De Grace

Aberdeen mayor backs raises for elected officials but demurs on how much

Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett told the city's salary task force Wednesday he thinks future elected officials do need a raise and he trusts task force members to come up with the appropriate amount.

Bennett was the final city elected official to meet with panel, which he and the four city council members formed earlier in the summer amid controversy over an ordinance that proposed significant raises for future occupants of those offices.

The task force will recommend if a salary increase is needed and, if so, how much; however, the mayor and council will have the final decision.

Bennett declined to comment on the recent ordinance proposing a 140-percent raise for the mayor and a 60-percent raise for the council members, explaining: "I don't know how to answer that because it's gone and it's done."

Nevertheless, he said he doesn't think the ordinance, which was tabled, was "unfair."

Asked whether elected officials need more money, he said: "Yes. What that figure should be is, I think, up to this group to look at."

The mayor's salary is $10,000 a year, and council members are paid $7,500. The positions are part-time.

Bennett agreed with some of the council members who have said their positions are jobs, not "philanthropic."

"I am being paid to do it by the city," he said. "When I come in, I am conducting business."

Bennett also noted, however, that the mayor's post remains part-time, at least for now.

"Certainly I am not doing a full-time job because, I'm sorry, $10,000 does not really motivate somebody to be here full-time, although sometimes it feels like I am here full-time," he said.

"The one thing that everybody needs to realize is the city manager is the chief operating officer and I am the chief executive officer," he said. "Eventually, yes, there will absolutely be a need for a full-time mayor here, putting in eight, 10 hours a day."

Bennett, who has been serving since November 2007, said the job involves more than what he originally expected.

"It's a complex job. It was a lot more than I anticipated," he said. "I knew that it would be one of those jobs. When I was fire chief, I didn't realize all the extra stuff that was going to be part of that, but you adapt and you do what you need to do to get the job done."

Bennett said his first few years were "really challenging," before he retired from his full-time job with the Maryland State Police in 2010.

He added that he believes the city is in "very good financial condition," is undergoing a lot of growth and will have $69 million worth of new projects coming into the city.

The salary considerations should take into account Aberdeen's specific needs, he said.

"For somebody to say that a salary that was in place 17, 18 years ago, however many years ago that was, that salary should be the same in today's market, that is just a ludicrous statement," Bennett explained.

"I think what we should look at with the present salary is, is that appropriate to go on ad infinitum? Is that going to go on forever?" he continued. "It's very difficult to compare municipalities against each other because they all have different things they are doing, they have different circumstances."

Landbeck, Elliott disagree

Two Aberdeen councilwomen gave very different perspectives on elected officials' workload and the need for a pay raise, during their appearances before the task force on Aug. 8.

Councilwoman Ruth Elliott and Sandra Landbeck were in the hot seat for what committee chair Mark Schlottman assured were "conversational, not confrontational" interviews.

Elliott has been opposed to the city's originally-proposed increases, and told the committee there is no reason the job requires any more than perhaps a $3,000 increase for the mayor and $2,500 raise for council members.

She disagreed with other council members' claims that the job has become increasingly complex and demanding.

"Any person in any position can make a job more complex, can make it simpler, can have a lame duck," Elliott said.

Elliott said Aberdeen still has the same problems every small town has.

"I don't think it's that much different than what I have seen in the last 20 years," said Elliott, who has also served as mayor and is the longest tenured member of the city council.

"If you are a mayor or council person who wants to make sure every I is dotted, every T is crossed, you micromanage, well, then maybe some staff members are needed because you are there every minute," she said. "That is not my style."

She said people should know what the salary and time commitment are before they run for office.

"To me, that comes with the job, the extra time," she said. "If you don't like it, don't take it."

Elliott saw no justification for the earlier ordinance proposing the steep increases.

"I don't like the ordinance. I think it's way out of bounds," she said, adding that the mayor has an SUV, a $10,000-limit credit card and a cell phone paid for by the city.

"Those are the things I think should be of concern to this committee," she said.

Landbeck, however, said being a city elected official means a "tremendous" amount of work and that the job has become dramatically changed by state-mandated legislation and new initiatives, like PlanMaryland, that come down the pike.

She noted the city has saved money by keeping Presbyterian Home of Maryland from building a tax-reduced retirement community, renegotiating bad contracts and securing a AA financial rating.

She said the city has brought in $3.7 million over the past year in extra money because of initiatives like these, and the salary increases would be a very small part of the total budget.

"You are looking at a $30 million budget, you are looking at an organization that has 160 employees, over $1 billion in assets," Landbeck said.

The current council members were never directly reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses, such as traveling to Maryland Municipal League conventions or other events, she said.

Landbeck did say, however, that council members were reimbursed for traveling to this year's convention in Ocean City for the first time, as the city actually created a form for processing mileage expenses.

She also pointed out that in the past, council members were each given $100 per month for out-of-pocket expenses until they were legally advised that was not a good idea.

Landbeck said she was not sure if council members could theoretically be reimbursed for travel or other expenses because she "just never asked."

"We just do it, just go," she said. "We do a lot. People expect us to be everywhere."

She also said the amount of criticism leveled at officials makes it clear the position is a job, not a volunteer or charity position.

"Trust me, this is a job, it's not a philanthropic position," she said. "It's not, 'I'm doing it as a charity.'"

She said she has been taken aback by how little appreciation elected officials get.

"When you do volunteer work, that doesn't happen," Landbeck noted about the criticism. "I have been called some pretty foul names, I have been called something obscene... You wouldn't do that if I was volunteering with the Red Cross."

She added the council spent hours calculating the amount requested for the raises based on cost-of-living changes and other factors.

"We didn't go across the street and pick off the tree an arbitrary number," she said.

Council members Bruce Garner and Ruth Ann Young appeared before the panel on Aug. 5. Though both said they believe raises are needed, Young said more information should be developed before any actual figures are recommended.

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