County officials get big raises; Department heads sometimes earn more than their executives; Competitive job market


America's chief executive officers aren't the only ones who have received big raises thanks to the booming economy -- some top county officials in the Baltimore area have seen their salaries jump, too.

For many officials, salaries have increased at more than twice the 4 percent average annual increase to lower-level executives in private industry.

Howard County Public Works Director James M. Irvin earns $117,416, a $23,000 increase over the past four years. Robert Barrett, a special assistant to Baltimore County's executive, earns $110,000, almost double the $58,000 he earned when hired in 1994.

With such pay raises, an increasing number of area government administrators -- at least 20 -- earn more than the county executives they serve.

County officials say the raises are needed to keep pace with corporate salaries and to prevent administrators from jumping to the private sector. The salaries are based on experience, expertise, performance and workload, they say.

Irvin has more than 20 years' experience in Howard County government. Barrett works "round the clock" as a liaison to the county Fire Department and County Council, oversees constituent complaints and handles county real estate transactions.

"He's worth more than what we're paying him," Baltimore

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger says of Barrett.

Critics say the hefty raises send the wrong message.

Taxpayer advocates say such raises will make it more difficult for counties to trim budgets if the economy sours and tax revenues dry up. Union leaders object to the disparity between raises for top administrators and for rank-and-file employees.

"The message to the little guy in the trenches is that his work isn't as important," said James L. Clark, president of the 550-member Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees.

Many of the union's correctional officers, police dispatchers, crew chiefs and secretaries were given pay upgrades last spring that will mean increases of about $4,500. But cost-of-living increases were only 2 percent, Clark said.

County officials in the Baltimore area say that the top administrators' pay scales are much lower than for comparable jobs in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and that the raises are small compared with those awarded to the nation's top corporate executives.

A survey by a Washington-based group found that pay for chief executives of large companies rose 36 percent in 1998. The survey by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy found that the average annual compensation for those executives was $10.6 million last year, a nearly 500 percent increase from the $1.8 million average in 1990.

That compares with a 4 percent average increase paid to lower-level executives in the private sector nationwide, according to several national surveys.

The annual William M. Mercer Compensation Planning Survey, released last month, showed that 2,000 midsize and large employers gave 13.9 million workers average raises of 4 percent a year in each of the past six years. The consumer price index increased 1.6 percent last year.

As top county administrators receive big raises, their paychecks are surpassing those of the county executives who appoint them.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey's $91,000 salary is $26,416 less than Irvin's and almost $21,000 less than that of his top aide, Chief Administrative Officer Raquel Sanudo.

Ruppersberger's $105,000 salary is $29,000 less than that of the Baltimore County health officer, Dr. Michelle Leverett, and $24,312 less than that of his top aide, executive officer Michael H. Davis. Ruppersberger earns $5,000 less than five other department heads.

Experts say there are two reasons for such disparities: the complexity of running a county agency and the intense public scrutiny that discourages hefty raises for county executives.

The salaries of top administrators are included in the departmental budget packages approved by county councils each spring, while executives' salaries are usually approved individually by the councils and are subject to closer scrutiny.

"Raising salaries for elected officials is always a sensitive issue with voters," said Larry E. Naake, executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Counties.

Top administrators often stay in their jobs longer than county executives, wrestling with government's mundane details, such as paving streets and collecting trash. The county executive's job -- a sought-after, elective position that changes hands every four or eight years -- is setting policy and making key decisions on spending and personnel.

"You're given a good deal of power when you take on these executives' positions, and in some sense that's part of the compensation," said Jeanne Bilanin, deputy director of the University of Maryland's Institute for Government Service at College Park.

The pay increases are most pronounced in bigger counties.

Ruppersberger has given an average 9.6 percent raise in each of the past four years to two advisers, county attorney Virginia Barnhart and Budget and Finance Director Fred Homan. That has brought their salaries up to the same $110,027 level as the county police chief, fire chief and public works director.

Ruppersberger says that members of his staff earn their pay, securing record amounts of state money for schools, overseeing a $1 billion budget and pumping millions into schools, roads and community improvements.

"Judge me on how I run my government, but keep in mind that I can't do the job without having the best people possible," Ruppersberger said.

Baltimore County officials also say that salary comparisons may be misleading because the county's departments are much bigger and top administrators may have more duties than in other jurisdictions. Baltimore County's budget director, for instance, directs both the budget and finance offices, while other counties have separate budget and financial officers.

Ruppersberger says he has to pay top dollar to retain staff members.

When he learned last year that Leverett was being recruited to be the District of Columbia's health director, he immediately boosted her $105,000 salary to $128,528. Leverett, a pediatrician, now earns $134,097.

Ruppersberger added that Davis, a Harvard graduate, was an experienced litigator and a partner with prestigious downtown law firm Venable, Baetjer and Howard when he was hired in 1994.

"The fact is, we have people who could be making more money in the private sector, and we have to do what we can to keep them," Ruppersberger said.

Experts agree that pay increases are necessary.

"The job market is very competitive right now, and it makes retaining good people more of a challenge," said David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties. "These people have families to support, and mortgages to pay and college tuition to worry about, just like everyone else."

But taxpayer groups say the generous raises should be closely watched.

"They've been saying we have to raise salaries to keep competent people, but it's getting out of hand," said John D. O'Neill, a retired certified public accountant from Towson and the former chairman of the Maryland Taxpayers Association. O'Neill, who has worked on Baltimore County tax issues since 1989, acknowledged that the raises are earned. He credited Homan with working hard since the budget and finance offices were placed under his control a few years ago.

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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