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Abingdon / Edgewood

News Maryland Harford County Abingdon / Edgewood

Harford council set to introduce raises for next council, county executive

Two members of the Harford County Council will introduce bills Tuesday night to give pay increases to the next county executive and future county council members amounting to about 25 percent from current levels starting next summer.

At least one council member, however, says the timing is bad, and Harford County Executive David Craig is threatening to veto the raises.

The legislation would set the county executive's base annual salary at $130,000. The existing base salary, set in 2004, is $90,000; however, subsequent annual increases tied to the Consumer Price Index have moved the executive's current salary to $105,136.

The base salaries for a county council member would increase from $31,000 to $45,000, while the base salary for the council president, who is elected separately, would increase from $34,000 to $48,000. Council members are considered part-time employees.

As has been the case with the county executive, council salaries have increased in some years based on CPI increases and are $36,210 for a council member and $39,718 for the council president, according to the county's human resources department.

In 2010, legislation began basing the annual CPI raises for the elected officials on whether county government employees received a commensurate raise in a given year, which has essentially frozen the salaries except for the 2012-13 fiscal year when all county government employees received a 4 percent cost of living adjustment.

Bills 14-27 and 14-28, to increase the compensation of the county council and county executive, respectively, are sponsored by Council President Billy Boniface and Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti. Both will be subject to public hearings on Sept. 2.

If approved by the council, the salaries would go into effect July 1, 2015. By law, five of the seven council members must approve the bills for them to take effect.

Studied for several years

During a meeting with Aegis staff Tuesday morning, Boniface and Lisanti said they have been discussing the need for pay increases for the elected officials since their last term and explained they want to make the elected officials salaries closer to those of other counties, noting that Harford's are the lowest among the seven largest counties in the state by population.

"It's a competitive market out there and we want to attract the brightest," Lisanti said, noting it is difficult for someone to work a full-time job and serve on the council.

"It means you work a 100-hour week many times," she said. "It is very, very difficult for a single-income person to be a full-time council member."

Boniface said he roughly based the new council salaries on what state legislators would be making starting next year ($50,000), explaining he doesn't want people who might be considering running for either county council or the Maryland General Assembly to be turned away from the former because of the salary.

Most other area counties are considering or have recently approved similar increases for their elected officials, according to a chart provided by the council members, and once the dust settles, Harford's salaries would still be at the lower end, even with the raises being proposed.

Boniface said he set the proposed salary for the county executive in the middle range of what the county's department heads are paid, between $105,000 and $165,000. He said he thinks $130,000 is still too low, but was concerned that a higher amount might have trouble passing.

"You have the chief executive of a billion dollar corporation [the county executive] making considerably less than the people he his hiring," he said. "That doesn't happen in private industry."

Neither Boniface, a Republican, nor Lisanti, a Democrat, will be returning to the council. Boniface didn't seek re-election, while Lisanti is seeking a House of Delegates seat. Both will have served eight years when their terms end in December.

Because they knew they wouldn't be coming back, they said felt comfortable addressing the issue, and both said they hope it sends a message that the next council and executive consider raising the salaries of county employees, sheriff's deputies and teachers, all of whom have essentially seen their salaries frozen the past six years.

"Our hope is to set a tone for the next administration and council to start addressing, on a regular basis, investing in our workforce," Boniface said.

Though Boniface said he expects the raise legislation will be controversial, he defended his thinking about it, saying the current county administration under Craig "has been about buying and building, and we need to invest in the workforce, in the ones actually keeping the engine running."

The county charter stipulates that raises for elected officials cannot take effect while those who approved them are still holding office – which would typically mean the raises would start at the beginning of a new council and executive term in early December.

Lisanti explained, however, they decided to set the start date at July 1, to coincide with the beginning of the 2015-16 fiscal year, thus giving the new council and county executive an opportunity to reconsider funding the increases in the next budget.

Difficult timing

Passage of the pay increases for the Harford elected officials is by no means assured, given the salary situation with thousands of teachers and other school employees and some 2,000 county employees and sheriff's office personnel and the looming general election campaign.

State Sen. Barry Glassman, a Republican, is heavily favored to succeed Craig as county executive. Glassman is opposed by Democrat Joseph Werner in the general election.

Glassman and Boniface are close friends and political allies, but Boniface said Tuesday he had not discussed the legislation with Glassman in specific terms, explaining, "he's too busy worried about running for office."

Boniface added that the increase "needs to be done" and that the next county executive, whoever they may be, will have an opportunity to review it in his first budget.

Four of the five remaining council members are running for re-election, although two, Chad Shrodes and Joe Woods, both Republicans, don't have general election opponents. Democrat Dion Guthrie and Republican Jim McMahan are running for their seats, and Richard Slutzky, who has served on the council 12 years, is running for the council presidency.

Slutzky said Friday he had not seen either bill and was reluctant to comment until he had.

Shrodes admitted he is "uncomfortable" with the planned legislation and had thus far refused to commit to giving his support, which was requested by Boniface.

"This is difficult to come up at a time when county employees haven't had a raise in a number of years," said Shrodes, who worked for the county government before he was first elected to the council in 2006. "I'm not feeling so good about it."

Shrodes also said the process needs to be more transparent than "just looking at some numbers on an Excel spreadsheet."

He said he believes at the very least the council should have appointed a compensation commission to review both the salaries of the county government employees, department heads and the elected officials alike.

Near the 'bottom'

"We are close to the bottom of the so called Big Seven [counties] if not the bottom," McMahan wrote in an email Saturday. "All the other Big Seven counties have some kind of adjustment in their pay schedule for council members planned."

Though he had not seen the bills, McMahan said he believes the council pay needs to increase to be competitive, not just with other counties, but with other elected offices.

The salaries of state delegates and state senators, he noted, will increasing by more than a third next year to $50,000 a year, "plus generous expense provisions.

"If we do not keep in step good potential candidates will want to run for [the General Assembly] when we need qualified candidates to run for council, a job closer to the people," McMahan continued. " In my case I would support raising the council salary (and the county executive) to make it attractive for the future, but if it is approved, I will give any increase in my check to a charitable cause until such time as all county employees receive a raise."

"Should the measure pass for council members, we cannot tell Treasury not to put the increase in our check but, as I said, I will give any increase away," he said. "Any council raise would not become effective until July 1, 2015, if it did pass."

McMahan also noted that "several years back the council gave up their automatic [cost of living adjustment] because no one else was getting raises."

"I feel positive that whatever new administration takes over will be dedicated to finding funds to give all county employees some kind of a much deserved raise," he added.

Comparisons

Boniface and Lisanti said they took both current salaries and planned increases in other counties, plus relative population and median household income, into account when they crafted their proposed raises for Harford officials.

Both also rejected the notion the council should have appointed an outside commission to study the issue, citing their own experience and the fact neither of them will benefit from any increase.

Baltimore County Council members, who are also part-time, are paid $54,000 annually, a staff member in that council's office said. The chairman, whom the seven council members choose among themselves, is paid $60,000. Effective Dec. 1, however, the salary for council members will rise to $62,500 and for council chairman to $70,000, under legislation passed earlier this year.

Members of the Cecil County Council are paid $25,000 annually, according to the county charter. There is not a separately-elected council president.

A spokesperson for Baltimore County said the county executive's salary was set at $150,000 annually, as of the 2013 fiscal year, but is due to rise to $175,000 effective Dec. 1, under legislation approved earlier this year.

The Cecil County executive's salary set in the county charter is $98,000 annually. The charter, adopted in 2012, also provides for appointment of a compensation commission to periodically review the county executive's and county council's salaries and recommend adjustments, up or down.

According to David Nitkin, spokesperson for Howard County government, the county executive's current salary is $171,301. County council members make $56,077 annually, and the council chairman, who is chosen by the council members, receives an additional $1,000.

In March, Howard's county council passed legislation setting the starting salary for the county executive at $178,000 effective Dec. 1, with subsequent annual raises tied to the Consumer Price Index, according to a comparison chart worked up by Boniface and Lisanti.

The base salaries of the Howard council president and council members are also due to increase Dec. 1, to $63,450 and $59,950, respectively, also with annual CPI increases.

Craig opposed

Craig, a Republican, who is serving out the last few months of his final term as county executive, said Friday he is opposed to the increases and will veto them.

Craig said the timing of Tuesday's council meeting and the introduction of the raise bills were curious, as the council has not met during August in previous years.

When he inquired about introducing a couple of minor administration bills at the same session, Craig said Boniface replied that wasn't the purpose of the meeting.

The county executive also noted there is a narrow window to introduce and enact legislation before the Nov. 4 general election, particularly if either bill is subject to an executive veto.

All legislation must be advertised for two weeks after it is introduced and then be the subject of a public hearing. Once it's passed, the county executive has 21 days to exercise the veto. If a veto is overridden by the council, the legislation can't take effect for 45 days to give the public an opportunity to petition it to referendum.

"I guess we know now why they are having the [Tuesday's] meeting," Craig said.

As for the pay raises, Craig said he is opposed to them.

"I'll veto them," he said without hesitation, inviting the council to override the vetoes.

This story is updated from an earlier version to clarify that council members, the county executive and all county employees received a cost of living adjustment of 4 percent in the 2012-13 fiscal year.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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