When Howard County Budget Director Ray Wacks spoke last year to a commission charged with considering salaries for Howard's elected officials, he struck a guarded tone.
"Things are getting better," he told the group in November. "We're in a period, I would say, of some growth right now. But what I've learned is things don't last forever, good or bad."
For the commission, that statement rang true.
The last time the group took a look at salaries for the council and the county executive, in 2009, the economy was in such a dark place that council members voted not to approve the modest raise the commission proposed.
In 2014, the outlook feels brighter.
This month, the Compensation Review Commission is once again looking at salaries for the next four years, as required by the county's charter.
The seven-member group's recommendations include a salary increase for both the county executive and council members. Under its proposal, the executive's salary would be raised $6,699 to $178,000.Council members' salaries would be $59,950, an increase of $2,864 above their 2014 pay.
Elected officials in Maryland aren't allowed to determine their own salaries – the new rates would take effect when the next four-year terms begin in December 2014. Four of the five current council members are running for a third term, while Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, has decided to run for county executive.
The council will vote next month to approve or modify the suggestions. Council members can decrease the proposed amounts, but they can't increase them.
If the council votes to approve the raise, it will be the first pay hike for the body, beyond a small cost-of-living adjustment, since 2006.
Elsewhere in the county, Howard public school teachers have protested Superintendent Renee Foose's budget proposal for fiscal year 2015, which includes a 0.5 percent cost-of-living increase but no salary step hike.
The council and county executive salary recommendations haven't created a stir, at least so far.
Howard County Citizens' Association President Stu Kohn was the only person to testify at a public hearing before the commission Oct. 29. He said council members deserve a raise, but also that the demands of their responsibilities should require their positions to be full time.
"I see the time and effort," council members put into their jobs, he told members of the commission. "They are extremely conscientious, and I know that regardless of the decisions they care. ... I'd like the commission to consider making this a full-time job and [have county council members] make equivalent to what Montgomery and Prince George's is making.
And, he added, "I think the county executive should make the most [money] of everyone," including department heads.
A public hearing on the proposed increase, as well as other bills before the council this month, is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. in the George Howard building in Ellicott City.
Six months of study
The salary recommendations are the culmination of six months of study by the compensation commission. Members received input from the county executive, council members and county employees about time commitments and budget matters. They also compared Howard's salaries to those of neighboring counties.
The commission concluded that compensation hasn't kept pace with the demands of elected officials' jobs.
"All in all, there was a recognition that we had probably fallen behind on appropriate compensation for the county council and the executive, although not dramatically so," said commission chair Steve Sass. "So we were looking for a methodology to adjust for now and avoid falling behind."