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."
In the past, the commission has had to raise council and executive salaries dramatically to keep up with inflation and the demands of the job. In 2006, for example, the council – which at the time was the second-lowest-paid in the region – voted to boost council pay by 44 percent, in order to keep up with its neighbors.
This time around, in addition to the one-time salary bump the commission proposed for next year, members also voted unanimously that salaries for both positions should increase by the change in the Consumer Price Index, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the Baltimore-Washington region.
In case the CPI decreases, or only increases by a minuscule amount, as it did during the recent recession, the commission has established a floor: council members and the executive, they recommend, should receive at least a 2.5 percent annual increase in pay, "so we don't fall behind," Sass said.
An increasingly demanding job
Although being on the council is considered a part-time job, council members said they work anywhere between 20 and 60 hours a week – more during exceptional times, such as the comprehensive zoning process last summer.
County Executive Ken Ulman told the commission in a letter that he had an average work week of 60 to 100 hours.
Council members testified that the demands of the job have grown in the two terms they've been in office.
"This council that we're in right now has worked much harder than the council before," west Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty said. "And I know that some of it is cyclical."
But the landscape has changed, she said. "I'm spending a lot more time meeting with people on legislation, especially legislation that has to do with land use. ... We have a lot more people paying attention."
Council chairman Calvin Ball, a Democrat from east Columbia, said social media has played a role in the increased workload.
"I think we have seen an explosion of opportunity to be accessible and responsive to our constituents through multiple means, including social media, email and community meetings," Ball said. "When I got onto the council in the spring of 2006, we were still primarily using letters and community meetings.
"Now, it's not uncommon for me to get 100 to 200 emails on a particular issue," he added.
"Technology has its pros and cons," Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents the southeast county, said. "It's a lot easier for us to get information out but it's also a lot easier for issues to come in." Terrasa said constituents often expected to hear back from her within 24 to 48 hours.
Three of the five council members have another job in addition to their council work, and commission members discussed weighing in on whether the position should be considered full time due to its growing responsibilities.
Most of the council members said making the job full time might discourage people from running for office.
"I think if you made it a full-time job you would limit who you would be attracting to the position," Watson, who also works as the vice president of a regional insurance firm, said. "I've always thought you should have a part-time legislature, that you should have people from different backgrounds who have other employers."
Watson said the commitment was a matter of managing time. "I think any of us could do this job 75 hours a week, easy," she said. "I think there is a lot of discretion in how much time we spend."
West county Republican Greg Fox said, "It's hard to put an exact number" on the value of the council's work.
"Everybody knows we work our butt off," he said. But, "you have to be respectful of those who haven't gotten [raises] recently."
Fox, and all the council members, did agree that the council chairperson deals with a significantly higher workload. Currently, the position makes $1,000 more than the other council members. The commission has proposed bumping that differential up to $3,500.
In acknowledgment of the growing necessity of technology on the job, as council members monitor and respond to constituent concerns using smartphones, laptops and iPads, the group also recommended a $3,500-per-council member technology stipend, to be used across each four-year term. Unused funds can be reappropriated from year to year until the next election.
Howard County falls squarely in the middle, salary-wise, when compared to what elected officials in neighboring jurisdictions receive.
According to 2013 salary data from the Maryland Association of Counties, Howard County council members made more than council members in Harford, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, but less than Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George's county council members. Harford council members made the least, at $35,168 a year, while Montgomery and Prince George's County council members made the most, at $99,069 and $99,695 a year, respectively.
Among county executive salaries, Howard County again fell in the middle, with a salary higher than executives in Harford, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, as well as the mayor of Baltimore City, but less than Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Harford's county executive made $102,111 in 2013, while the Prince George's county executive earned $180,474.
Commission members pointed out, however, that Howard County's population of a little less than 300,000 people is a lot smaller than the population of Prince George's County, at more than 881,100, or Montgomery County, with its slightly more than 1 million residents. Montgomery and Prince George's county council members work full time.
In contrast, state-level legislators made less than most county council members in 2013, bringing in $43,500. Nearly all of the county executives made more than Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who earned $155,000 last year.
Comparing the council to the rest of the county
As the fiscal year 2015 budget comes together, some public employees' unions have already finalized contracts with the county, while some are still in negotiations.
According to Wacks, the budget director, three unions – representing blue collar workers, dispatchers and correctional officers – have agreements with the county to receive an annual step increase and a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment in fiscal year 2015.
"Prior to 2008, there was a norm of regular steps and [cost-of-living adjustments]," Wacks said of county employees' salaries. "Since 2008 and the recession, there has not been a norm because we've been going through such strange and difficult times."
Throughout the recession, county employees continued to receive step increases, though those were offset by furloughs for everyone but police officers.
"I would say in 2014 we're returning to normal," Wacks said.
Sass said he hoped the council would approve the group's recommendations.
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"It is a meaningful increase to the people in the position," he said. "They work very hard and spend tremendous amounts of time. We do what we can. We want enough compensation to attract candidates to the position, and that's really important."