Members of the Harford County Council grilled County Executive David Craig's legislative liaison Nancy Giorno and deputy treasurer Rick Pernas for almost an hour Tuesday on the proposed one-time, $1,250 bonus Craig wants to pay to all county employees.
Council members questioned where the funding for the bonuses came from and why the budget projections seemed to go so far astray.
The council ultimately tabled a vote at Tuesday night's meeting on the bonuses. The first distribution is set for Dec. 23 and the county council's next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 13.
Six people had also signed up to speak at a public hearing on legislation which the council must pass in order for the bonus plan to be funded and the payments made to some 6,500 county and school system employees.
Judging from some of the council members' comments, the bonus legislation could be in trouble once it comes to vote. Craig and his administration were hoping for approval Tuesday. For updates on the hearing and any vote, check with http://www.exploreharford.com.
Council President Billy Boniface said he was unhappy Craig was in New York while Tuesday's hearing was taking place; however, Bob Thomas, a Craig spokesman, said the county executive, county treasurer and director of administration were away on a two-day trip to meet with bond credit rating agencies, something they do annually at the invitation of the agencies. Thomas said the council had known for at least a week that Craig would not attend the hearing.
Boniface also said he is concerned about the effect of the bonus on future salary increases.
"The question is, have the employees signed off on the fact that they are getting bonuses in lieu of raises for the next fiscal year?" he asked, to which Giorno replied they have not.
She did say agreements have been signed with all but one union that they strongly support this. Agreements have also been signed with three Harford County Public Schools unions and a cafeteria workers union.
That prompted Boniface to wonder why the one union did not sign.
"I think the public needs to know that. You're asking for our permission to move forward and we're getting our information from press releases. It's a little frustrating sometimes," Boniface said.
"There's going to be 3,000 teachers that are pretty mad when they don't get bonuses because you weren't able to get an agreement between [the union]," he said. "That's a big sticking point with me and my colleagues…That's not showing our due diligence."
In late October, Craig announced Harford had finished the 2010-11 fiscal year that ended June 30 with a $32 million budget surplus, which he attributed to budget cutbacks during the year and higher than anticipated local income tax revenue.
Craig said it was his intention to pay a $1,250 bonus to all employees, most of whom have not had any raises for three years. The raises will cost between $7 million and $8 million. Craig also said he planned to hold $12 million of the surplus in reserve and earmark the remaining $10 million to $11 million for capital projects.
Several government sources have said Craig announced the bonus without consulting council members beforehand, even though two council members attended the press conference where the plan was announced.
During Tuesday's hearing, Boniface said he did not want to put the council members in a position of explaining their decision to citizens who are struggling to make ends meet.
"Things are tough out there. In the real world, we are all really struggling right now," he told Giorno.
Boniface noted the county made "pretty good" reductions in services and asked why raises for the employees did not come up at that point.
"We're concerned spending this money now will put the county in a situation where we have to raise taxes," he added.
Giorno assured she did not think Craig would wish the county to be in that situation.
Boniface asked: "What are you doing different as we move forward to ensure we don't end up with a shortfall down the road?"
Giorno explained the majority of the surplus was from departmental savings in the last budget.
Pernas said $17 million of the difference came from higher income tax revenues than anticipated.
Councilman Chad Shrodes said he was worried about how the bonuses would look to state officials.
"When they're making their decisions and they're trying to figure out how to cut things, it looks possibly like we're a rich county," he said.
Speakers from the public who talked during the hearing were largely union representatives and defended the need for county employees to get a bonus.
Verna White, of Baldwin, was one resident who spoke, and questioned why landowners were not notified earlier of such a large surplus.
She wanted to know why Craig was not at the meeting, and asked the council to vote against the proposal.
"I want to see a new bill that returns most of the surplus to overcharged taxpayers," she said.