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Unreasonable raises for elected leaders [Editorial]

A commission recently recommended pay raises of nearly 25 percent for five members of the Howard County Council and the county executive.
A commission recently recommended pay raises of nearly 25 percent for five members of the Howard County Council and the county executive. (File photo)

A commission that is recommending pay raises of nearly 25 percent for the five members of the County Council and the county executive calls the adjustment “an unusual and justified reset.”

Unusual, yes. Justified? Debatable.

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The commission, appointed by the County Council to review pay every four years as allowed by the county’s charter, suggests council members who take office in December, after the November election, earn $80,000 (a $15,000 increase) and the county executive’s pay be set at $226,000 (up $42,000) annually.

In addition, these elected leaders would be guaranteed yearly cost-of-living increases of at least 2.5 percent, as well as other perks, such as a cellphone allowance. Let’s not forget they all have staff members to support and promote their work and provide constituent services.

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At $80,000, the council pay proposal is quite generous for part-time work for which there are few qualification benchmarks, such as education or experience. The citizen-legislators on the council can hold outside jobs. Determining suitability and competence for office is left up to the voters.

The Howard County executive could see a 23 percent salary increase this December if a new bill raising the county leader’s annual pay to $226,000 passes the County Council.

To be fair, the commission noted, “the workload has increased and intensified” and most council members said the job is more than 40 hours a week. A double-digit boost also acknowledges Howard’s relatively high cost of living, the changing demands of the job and the need to attract candidates from different walks of life, according to the commission’s November report.

The pay for the county executive, whose duties are similar to those of a corporate chief executive officer, would remain well above than that of Maryland’s governor and be the highest in Maryland. Again, the commission rationalizes the figure as necessary, in part, to entice “high caliber and diverse candidates.”

Perhaps the weakest argument made by the commission is the outsized raises are necessary “to maintain a reasonable parity with elected officials elsewhere.” Trying to keep up with the neighbors – such as Montgomery or Prince George’s with their significantly larger populations and distinctly diverse governing challenges – is folly.

Providing “fair and equitable” compensation, a term used by the commission, is important in attracting and retaining quality employees. (One downside on this system of establishing pay for county elected leaders is that voters have to wait four years before giving their evaluations on whether they’re worth it. Term limits do insure that some professional politicians can’t exploit the power of incumbency and hold office for life.)

From the perspective of taxpayers, some of whom are living on fixed incomes, juggling two jobs or sticking to a tight family budget to make ends meet, another term is important: reasonable. Raises of greater than 20 percent are unreasonable in these times.

When it votes on the commission proposals later this year, the council needs to hold the line and scale back the base adjustment to under 10 percent. Public service isn’t about the money.

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