Council sets limits on own costs


Howard County Council members wielded their budget knives on themselves yesterday by imposing spending ceilings on car phone use, convention attendance and the amount they can pay their assistants.

Next week, they begin looking to control similar costs in the rest of county government as they take up this year's budget proposal from County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

The Republican county executive, who pretty much had his way with budget cuts when Democrats controlled the council, may find the GOP-dominated council eager to cut even more.

"Everything is on the table," 3rd District Republican Dennis Schrader told his colleagues yesterday, setting the tone for the next six weeks of council hearings on Mr. Ecker's budget proposal.

Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, has been trying to get the council to set spending limits on individual members since last December, when he became chairman.

Yesterday's actions limit members to $200 for transportation, food and lodging for each convention they attend and require council members to reimburse the county if their car phone use exceeds $1,500 a year.

Although all five council members have car phones, yesterday's actions appear directed primarily at Councilman C. Vernon Gray, 2nd District Democrat, who preceded Mr. Feaga as chairman.

Current car phone figures are not available, but when Mr. Gray ran for re-election last fall, his Democratic primary opponent criticized him for having the highest phone bills in county government.

During the campaign, Kathryn Mann released documents showing that Mr. Gray's calls accounted for 20 percent of the county's $24,000 bill for 44 car phones. Mr. Gray's bill was $4,800.

Mr. Gray responded to that criticism at that time by saying, "My car is my office. We are part-time council members, even though I work over 60 hours a week" on county business.

He said that commuting to Morgan State University, where he is a political science professor, takes 40 minutes each way.

Yesterday, in arguing for the limit on car phone spending, which amounts to $4.11 a day for each member, Mr. Feaga told council members that the ceiling is three times the amount he spent on himself last year.

Mr. Gray scoffed at that comparison, saying, "Different members have different obligations. Some get more calls. Three times what you do is no standard."

Mr. Schrader, who uses his car phone when commuting to and from his job in Baltimore, also felt the limit on car phone spending is too low.

"It's a strain when you're not in [the County Council office] all the time -- but I'm willing to do my part," he told Mr. Feaga. Mr. Gray tried and failed to get the ceiling raised to $2,000.

Mr. Feaga also seemed to be targeting Mr. Gray's convention expenses. In the period between July 1 last year and April 7 this year, Mr. Gray spent $2,990.39 on meetings, meals and lodging -- more than triple the amounts spent by Mr. Feaga and Ellicott City Republican Darrel Drown during the same period. Mr. Feaga spent $893.53 and Mr. Drown spent $781.78.

Mr. Schrader and Democrat Mary Lorsung of West Columbia have only been on the council since December.

Ms. Lorsung has spent $715.99 on meetings, meals and lodging since then. Mr. Schrader has spent $462.74.

The council agreed to limit the amount each member could spend on transportation, food, and lodging at a convention to $200 per event. Reimbursement of expenses for an event costing more than $200 would require a majority vote of the council. The council exempted events sponsored by the Maryland Association of Counties from the $200 per spending limits.

Council members also agreed yesterday to restrict the amount they can pay their assistants. Under the new rules, they will not hire anyone at a salary greater than $37,674 a year and will not give raises greater than the percentage approved in the budget for other county employees.

Three of the five aides now are paid $37,674. One is paid $38,610 and the other is paid $32,474.

The changes approved yesterday will take effect July 1.

Mr. Ecker will present his proposed budget to the council Monday night.

With the exception of the education portion of the budget, the council can only accept or cut what Mr. Ecker proposes. It can restore any money the executive cut from the Board of Education request, but cannot raise it.

The council will begin holding hearings on Mr. Ecker's budget proposal next week. It plans to approve the budget and set the property tax rate May 24.

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