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County workers press for raises

The Baltimore Sun

They came to the County Council's annual budget hearing directly from their jobs, in work clothes or sporting chartreuse T-shirts printed with "Raise our pay up from the bottom."

From the packed auditorium at North Harford High School, county workers waved posters with the same message and applauded loudly for speakers who took up their cause.

County Executive David R. Craig has proposed an operating budget of $616,008,031 and a capital budget of $279,813,330 for fiscal year 2009, which begins July 1. The total is about $34 million less than the 2008 fiscal year and one of the leanest budgets in the past decade. But, it includes raises that Craig considers critical to hiring and retaining a productive work force.

About 50 residents addressed the council Tuesday evening, most of them urging officials to approve a 9 percent pay increase for Harford's nearly 1,300 government workers. Several reminded council members Chad Shrodes and Mary Ann Lisanti that they once labored among their ranks and should be sympathetic to their cause.

"As former county employees, you have first hand experience with this work force," said Janet Schaub, deputy director of human resources. "Your former co-workers helped you win your elected positions. Now they are depending on you for support."

Many demanded parity with teachers and sheriff's deputies, groups who have won significant pay increases in the last two years. A county-funded job classification study recently concluded Harford employees earn at least 5 percent less than their market value.

"It is our turn!" said procurement worker Marylee Gorman, a sentiment repeated throughout the meeting.

With few exceptions, like appeals for a boost in library funding, augmented retiree benefits and money for construction of a walking trail in north Harford, salaries dominated the evening.

If the budget wins council approval, workers, who meet expectations on their evaluations, would receive a 3 percent cost of living increase, a 3 percent market adjustment and a 3 percent merit raise.

"We are career professionals in every sense of the word and we deserve just, meaningful compensation," said Erick Etelsen. "Teachers and the sheriff's department got their raises. Don't create a two-tier system."

In fiscal 2008, deputies received a 16 percent raise, depending on their rank and tenure. This year, the proposal would give employees of the Sheriff's Office 3 percent cost-of-living and 3 percent step increases. The salary now attracts skilled candidates to the department, said Fred Visnaw, president of the Harford County Deputies Association.

"Instead of vacancies, we have a list of qualified people who want to come to work for us," he said.

Employees and their supervisors from nearly all the county agencies detailed difficulties in hiring and retaining personnel with salaries that are below other government jurisdictions and far below commerce and industry.

"We are all in danger of becoming an incubator for the private sector," said Sharon Vanden Eynden, a 10-year-veteran of Harford's economic development office. "I realize the council is under pressure, but a no vote says we are not important and that you don't have confidence in your work force."

It took public works nearly nine months to hire an engineer. The highways department has eight vacancies and is handling more miles of road with less employees than it had a decade ago. Nearly 40 percent of the job offers the county extended since July 1 were rejected, most often for salary, officials said.

Erin Englar, who holds a master's degree and owns a home in Bel Air, works as the county's lease coordinator and is barely making it on her salary.

"If salaries stay the same, we will continue to loose employees and won't be able to hire replacements," she said. "Departments are having to settle for their third and fourth choices. It is going to affect the quality of services."

Jim Swank, assistant superintendent of Harford's highway division, said he has few applicants for eight job vacancies. He often has to hire and train unskilled workers, who eventually use the agency as a springboard to better paying jobs.

"You have to stop the revolving door for employees," Swank said. "In our department, we are in essence the training ground for the construction industry."

Dennis Graham of Jarrettsville made the only argument for fiscal restraint. He owns a construction business that is suffering from the downturn in the housing market and recently had to lay off several employees.

"I am sure people deserve raises," Graham said. "But how will you fund it? With higher taxes and assessments? There are no jobs available in construction and everybody needs money."

Many speakers expected to reiterate their comments at a second budget hearing Thursday in Havre de Grace.

"There will probably be even more people, because it will be easier for people to get there," said Council President Billy Boniface, who thanked the crowd for the comments.

"This input is important to us," he said. "We know that salary is a big issue."

The council expects to vote on the budget at the end of this month.

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