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Harford sheriff seeks raise for his position, and for those serving under him

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler is actively supporting a pay increase for his position, as well as for the deputies under him.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler is actively supporting a pay increase for his position, as well as for the deputies under him. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS FILE / Baltimore Sun)

Harford County's legislative delegation in Annapolis is preparing to introduce a bill that would give the next Harford sheriff a pay increase of about 20 percent, making the position one of the highest paid elected offices in the county.

Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler, who has been in office for 26 months, is supporting the increase, which would have to be approved by the Maryland General Assembly and wouldn't take effect until after the next election for sheriff in 2018.

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At the same time, Gahler has been pushing the county government to fund additional raises for his deputies, and two Harford legislators have introduced legislation to provide the deputies' and correctional officers' unions with collective bargaining rights and binding arbitration to resolve pay and work conditions issues.

All three issues may be on a collision course.

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Gahler and the county government administration have opposed binding arbitration for the deputies, while County Executive Barry Glassman does not support the method being considered to set the pay of future sheriffs.

Harford's sheriff, who is elected every four years, is a de facto county police chief. His agency is responsible for law enforcement, operation of the county jail and circuit court services and security.

Gahler is paid $117,645 a year, according to Sheriff's Office spokesperson Cristie Kahler. The sheriff proposes increasing the salary to mirror the salary of a District Court judge, who is paid $141,333 a year.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, who makes $131,939 a year and whose salary is set by the County Council, would be responsible for funding any pay increases for the sheriff, the deputies and other employees of the Sheriff's Office, as the county government is the funding authority for the agency.

Not 'transparent'

Glassman said last week that he doesn't oppose "a reasonable raise" for the sheriff.

He does not, however, support the way it's being done, he said, because by tying the salary to a judge's would mean the county would have no direct control over any future raises, nor would they receive proper public oversight.

Harford legislators list their goals for the 2017 Maryland General Assembly session in Annapolis.

Salaries for district and circuit court judges, the latter who are paid $154,433 a year, are set by the legislature and tend to rise in tandem, noted Glassman, a former state delegate and state senator.

The county executive confirmed he was sent a copy of the draft legislation and has since written to the delegation voicing his objections.

"I understand the difficulty and uneasiness of debating and approving public raises as we recently have done in Harford County," Glassman wrote in the letter, a copy of which was requested by The Aegis. "Yet, in its current form, the lack of transparency in this bill represents the practices that Governor Hogan's ethical reforms are tying to remove from Annapolis and nullifies Harford's long history of full disclosure of public officials salaries at the local and state level."

Gahler, meanwhile, met with legislators in Annapolis last week to discuss the pay legislation and other issues.

He noted in a letter to the House delegation that the Harford state's attorney's position's salary was raised through similar legislation approved during last year's General Assembly session and will also be tied to district court judges. The state's attorney currently makes $114,587 annually.

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Deputies pay

Earlier this week, Gahler publicly announced his support for the measure that would increase the sheriff's pay. He also declared he would work to get major pay increases for the deputies and correctional officers who work under him.

"The existing Harford County Sheriff's Office Salary Structure is broken from top to bottom," he stated in his letter to the House delegation, which he presented during the weekly delegation meeting last Thursday.

Salaries paid to the next group of Harford County Council members elected in two years will increase substantially under pay raise legislation approved Tuesday night by the current council.

Gahler commissioned a salary study for the Sheriff's Office in early 2016. The study confirmed what leaders of the deputies' union have been saying in recent months about salaries not being competitive and that experienced officers have been leaving for agencies with better pay.

Salaries that were frozen for nearly a decade also make it difficult to recruit new deputies.

In the current fiscal year, Glassman funded 3 percent merit-based salary increases for deputies and other county employees, but he also provided another 3 percent for deputies first class and senior deputies and another 6 percent for corporals. That gave deputies of those ranks raises of 6 and 9 percent, respectively.

Union leaders, as well as Gahler, however, have been critical that those raises didn't go far enough.

They have cited "compression" issues with the salary schedule, pointing out many newer deputies in lower ranks are being paid at levels similar to more experienced deputies whose salaries were frozen for several years prior to 2014.

While union officials have said they appreciate the increases that were approved, they also said compressing the pay structure is a disincentive to seek promotions and more responsibility, when the pay won't increase commensurately.

"What elected officials of this county need to ask themselves is what kind of candidate will be hired in the future if the current epidemic continues, and how much further do the numbers need to dwindle, before the agency is unable to maintain adequate response times for simple lack of available deputies," Mike Montalvo, president of the Harford County Deputy Sheriff's Union, stated in a recent news release.

Gahler stated in his letter to the delegates and senators that "my team and I have made addressing the pay and compression issues our top priority."

Pay studies

Montalvo said in an interview Thursday that Gahler has been "very transparent" in working with the deputies' union and the corrections officers' union.

The Sheriff's Office has 543 employees, including 286 law enforcement deputies, 141 corrections deputies and 116 civilian employees, according to spokesperson Kyle Andersen.

The salary scale for Harford County Sheriff's Office deputies must be fixed, or the agency will continue to lose experienced personnel to counties with better pay, and have greater difficulty recruiting new deputies, according to union leaders.

The Sheriff's Office hired the Management Advisory Group International Inc. for the salary study. The firm reviewed current salary data for the agency, salary data for surrounding law enforcement and corrections agencies and recommended competitive pay plans with step increases for Harford law enforcement, corrections and civilian employees.

"We're pleased with the pay study, but it's just a matter of the county executive finding the money in his budget to fund it," Montalvo said.

A budget request has been sent to the county administration – it would cost $8.38 million to fund a recommended market-rate salary plan and $4.44 million for a reduced market-rate salary plan, according to the request from the Sheriff's Office.

Gahler recommends funding the reduced market-rate plan.

Montalvo said that plan is "a step in the right direction to getting our salaries fixed."

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Legislative solution

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Gahler noted in his letter to the delegation that the salary for the elected sheriff is "the one salary that cannot be addressed through the Salary Study," hence the need for legislation.

"Establishing a process that allows the salary of the Sheriff (as with the State's Attorney's bill last year) to remain at a market level only seeks to reduce the frequency of the need for the legislature (and legislators) to continually revisit this topic," he wrote.

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler explains his position on collective bargaining for deputies and who should involved in the negotiation process.

Gahler said his current salary is equal to that of a senior captain in his agency. He noted the salary for the Queen Anne's County sheriff is tied to the salary of the local state's attorney, while the Charles County sheriff's salary is equal to that of a Maryland State Police lieutenant colonel and the Baltimore City sheriff's salary is similar to the pay of a member of the Baltimore County Police command staff.

Republican Del. Rick Impallaria said salary increases for the Harford sheriff have been requested in past years through legislation in Annapolis, which he noted the delegation has never been rejected during his 15 years in office.

"For right now, I can tell you I'm very supportive of a pay raise for the sheriff, and I'm even supportive of a pay raise for the deputies," Impallaria said.

His brother, Tim, is a deputy with the Sheriff's Office and is a former head of the deputies' union.

Rick Impallaria said Gahler has been doing "a really good job as the sheriff."

"I think people should get merit pay and be rewarded for the work that they do, and he's doing a really good job," Impallaria said.

Collective bargaining

But Democratic Del. Mary Ann Lisanti said questions that came up among the delegates when they met with the sheriff included why Gahler wants a raise, why it should be tied to a judge's salary as opposed to a "comparable law enforcement agency" – she noted the sheriff would make more than the county executive, if the increase is approved – and the timing of the request.

"Why we should be entertaining that prior to having some type of direction with the pay for deputies?" Lisanti asked.

Harford County residents could be asked in the coming weeks to sign a petition for a county charter amendment allowing Harford County Sheriff's Office deputies' union representatives to negotiate with the county government and create a binding contract.

She and Impallaria are sponsoring House Bill 670, which was introduced Wednesday, to grant Harford deputies and corrections officers the right to collectively bargain with the sheriff and county executive on issues such as pay and benefits, as well as binding arbitration.

The legislation would allow an independent arbitrator to resolve an impasse between the union and the sheriff or county government, and that arbitrator's decision would be binding upon all parties.

Gahler said during a pre-session meeting with legislators last September that he does not support collective bargaining for deputies, although bargaining over salaries would be a separate issue because he does not control funding for his agency.

"The Sheriff has over 600 employees under his command and his deputies are being challenged in so many ways," Republican Del. Susan McComas wrote in an email Tuesday. "So that being said I am very open to raising his salary as well as working to help his deputies get higher pay without tax increases."

McComas noted Harford County must compete with other jurisdictions to attract the best law enforcement officers, "so we need to hear from County Government on this matter since it is the County that will pay the Sheriff's and deputies salaries."

Montalvo said his union is not opposed to the sheriff seeking an increase in salary, noting the Harford County Council recently voted to raise salaries of future council members.

He said collective bargaining is needed so deputies can use similar methods to negotiate for pay increases, since they don't have the same powers as lawmakers who set the elected officials' salaries, including their own.

"They're doing the same thing that we wish we had the mechanism to do ourselves," he said of the sheriff and the County Council.

Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this report.

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