Harford council plans to increase its staff, budget

The Harford County Council is about to do a major reshuffling of its staff, hoping to hire up to nine new employees, including a personal aide for each council member.

Last Wednesday, the council listed new openings for a full-time, "at-will" council attorney, two administrative specialists and six legislative aides for each council member. (One current part-time administrator is also staying on as a seventh legislative aide.)

Five employees who had been working in the council office were transferred to other county departments, including senior assistant council attorney Mary Kate Herbig, who was moved to the law department, county Human Resources Director Scott Gibson said Tuesday.

Besides Herbig, three administrative assistant positions were transferred to the Office on Aging, Harford Transit and parks and recreation, Gibson said. A council legislative drafter was also moved to the law department.

Gibson referred questions on the justification for the new positions to the council office, saying the council is in charge of its own budget.

Though the council's operations are among the smallest in the county government from a total expenditure standpoint compared to those of other county agencies in the 40-year home rule era, the growth of the council's budget has been exponential.

In the 2012 fiscal year, the council's total budget is $2,537,353, up $452,349, or 21.7 percent, since 2009.

In addition to legislative operations and the zoning hearing examiner's office, the council budget includes the Cultural Advisory Board and Harford Cable Network, the latter which is largely supported by franchise fees collected from the county's three cable TV providers.

County Council President Billy Boniface, who sat down with a reporter from The Aegis Tuesday, along with council members Mary Ann Lisanti and Dick Slutzky, said the planned new hires will have no impact on this year's budget.

"We still had some money because we did not fill the county auditor [position] until recently," Boniface said in explaining how any hires to the new positions will be paid through the end of the 2012 fiscal year in June.

The council members said they expect the reorganization to increase the council's budget by a maximum of $226,000, including benefits, although they said the increase would most likely be between $175,000 and $200,000.

Salaries for the new positions, with benefits, are projected to total as much as $573,000 for fiscal year 2013 (the minimum would be $377,000). The transferred positions had a total cost of $431.069.16 for salaries and benefits, according to a chart provided by Boniface.

A new council attorney, however, would have an earnings package of up to $125,000, compared to the $142,290.90 Herbig was earning.

Boniface also said the transferred positions are still being funded by the council's budget.

"It's not that we made the administration absorb it. We are still buying their salaries that were [paid] in the past," he said.

Although the new organization was not made public as such, the three council members defended the plan and said they have been working on this since Pamela Meister began serving in the post of council administrator last summer. Meister's position is the only legislative branch position provided for by the county charter, other than those of the seven council members.

"I think we have been very clear that we wanted to strive for a more streamlined and efficient [council office]," Lisanti said, adding the council has made it clear they were looking at their operations.

Boniface said: "This is one of the challenges that we gave the new council administrator when she came on board, to see how we were functioning and where our weaknesses were and [how to] improve our reorganization."

Lisanti has said in the past that council members need more assistance in doing research and responding to constituent requests and concerns.

The council members' aides will be paid between $30,000 and $40,000 annually. The council members are paid $35,168 annually, the council president, $38,575.

A position for an assistant council administrator, which has been on the books, was never filled, Boniface said.

Before last week, the council's attorney was contractual, he said. That post has been held for years by Charles Kearney, who remains under contract, according to Meister.

Meister said Monday that Kearney's contract will continue until the transition is made to a full-time council attorney, at which point, she said, Kearney is welcome apply for the new position.

Lisanti explained the council wants a lawyer who is at council members' disposal 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The legislative drafter position was also eliminated because it did not meet the council's needs, Boniface said.

"What we were after was an entirely different classification model," he said.

Future positions that would not be requested for funding in 2013 include an assistant council attorney and a policy analyst.

Having personal legislative aides for each council member is especially needed, Slutzky and Lisanti said, so council members are not competing for time with a small pool of shared aides.

"It's been a constant battle for me," Boniface said about the fight for aides' time.

They also said it would allow for better continuity from one group of elected officials to the next.

"This will benefit the elected official dealing with their constituents' needs much better than they were dealing before," Boniface said.

Regardless of who the right person is to deal with a constituent's problem, "we are the ones that are the voice or the face of government," Boniface said.

Other jurisdictions, such as Baltimore County, have a similar setup of personal legislative aides, he said.

"This is not re-inventing the wheel," Boniface added.

"This is minuscule compared to the other counties," Lisanti agreed.

The new county auditor also started working March 5, Boniface noted.

This story has been updated to include correction regarding the employment status of longtime county council attorney Charles Kearney.

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