Harford Council members say they are 'listening' to constituents on pay raises

Harford County Council members said they are listening to the public's responses on pending legislation to raise salaries for the council and county executive, and at least three say they believe the proposed raises are a good idea.

The sponsors, County Council President Billy Boniface and Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti, both said Tuesday they stand behind the legislation, despite the mostly hostile reactions to it on social media and a declaration last week by Councilman Richard Slutzky that he won't vote for the council's proposed raise.

Two other members, Councilman Dion Guthrie and Councilman Chad Shrodes, said they have not decided how they will vote. Neither Councilman Joe Woods nor Councilman Jim McMahan responded to requests for comment.

The legislation, which will have a public hearing on Sept. 2, would increase the salaries for the county executive, county council president and six district council members by between 20 and 25 percent.

Five of seven council votes are required to pass the legislation which would set the county executive's base salary at $130,000 a year, up from the current $105,136; the council president's at $48,000, up from $39,721; and a council member's at $45,000, up from $36,210. Regardless of whether the legislation passes, those positions would still be eligible for annual raises tied to the Consumer Price Index.

The raises would not apply to the sitting council or to Harford County Executive David Craig, who has already said he would veto the legislation. Craig is leaving office in December.

Guthrie, who is running for re-election, said he is not sure how he will vote.

"I am still looking at it and I am still getting a lot of phone calls and conversation about it," he said, before explaining why raises for the executive and council are, objectively, a good idea.

"What I think is a sad fact right now and really embarrassing for the county now is, if we take a look at the overall picture, and because of the current administration that we have been under the past eight years, never has the county executive put any wage increase – hardly at all – for anybody," Guthrie said.

Guthrie said that fact has pitted the various county factions – teachers, Sheriff's Office employees and others – against each other. He even suggested Craig might be mad at the legislation because he has not received an increase.

He also called a recent Aegis editorial opposing the increases "really poorly done" and noted the council salaries are far behind those of other jurisdictions.

"You have got to start somewhere," he said about the claim that all Harford employees need raises.

"It's just a double-edged sword because every time you are trying to talk about how to give teachers a raise, then you get e-mails from the Harford County Sheriff's Office: 'What about us?'" he said. "Now you are talking about the county executive getting a raise in a respectable area, [teachers and others] say, 'Not now, what about us?' But when is now?"

He also shot down the idea that being a council member is a part-time job, explaining that in a growing county, serving constituents requires putting in many more than 40 hours per week.

"I can tell you right now, this is not a part-time job," he said.

Shrodes had previously said he was "uncomfortable" with the legislation and had not made any commitment to support it.

He reiterated Tuesday that he stands by those and other comments that he wants all county employees to get raises.

"I do support raises for teachers, law enforcement and county employees in the next year's budget and I appreciate the work they do," Shrodes said in voice mail message. "I'm not going to comment any further from my last conversation."

Shrodes is also running for re-election, but he does not have an opponent in the general election, nor does Woods. McMahan is opposed in his bid to hold onto his seat, as does Slutzky, who is running for council president to succeed Boniface, who is retiring after two terms. Lisanti also will not be returning to the council in December, as she is running for the House of Delegates.

Many county employees, including the leaders of unions that represent them, have been angry that the executive and council members might get pay raises when other employees have been denied them for years. County employees received a 4 percent cost of living raise in July 2012, their only pay increase since July 2009.

Boniface said his goal for the proposed raises for the county executive and county council is to "set the tone" for the county administration to consider future raises for the rest of its workforce.

"I still believe strongly in the justification for it," he said.

He noted the raises would not go into effect until July 1, 2015, so they can be funded through the next budget process, where a new county executive and council will still be able to review them.

Lisanti said she is glad to see the bills have spurred debate on compensation in general.

"I think that I am very energized by the response that we have gotten," she said, adding she is glad to see people are willing "to take part in the much-needed public conversation about compensation across the board."

"One of my main goals was to induce public comment and public discussion about compensation in its totality," she added.

Lisanti said she has tried to promote that type of discussion before, but for the most part, the only people the council sees address compensation issues are the union representatives and "their tight inner core."

Lisanti would not say definitely if she still believes in the legislation but said she has always been a proponent of "fair and good compensation."

"I am listening, and finally, the public is talking and communicating to us," she said. "It's premature to make any decision. I am listening very intently to everyone that is contacting my office."

She added the bills have helped educate many county employees who "were given inaccurate information and led to believe that the county council directly negotiated with the workforce [about raises]."

Boniface said it remains to be seen how the council will vote.

"It takes five members of the council to support this, so I may hear from the council members they don't want to support it," he said.

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