Baltimore officials quietly granted pay raises to Mayor Sheila Dixon, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and other council members last month, increasing politician salaries at a time when leaders are freezing pay for midlevel managers and slashing overtime for police officers and firefighters.
The raises were approved without discussion at a Nov. 26 meeting of the city Board of Estimates. Dixon, Pratt and Rawlings-Blake sit on the five-person panel, and each abstained from voting on her own salary.
In meeting documents, the increases were called "salary adjustments" for pay grades 88E, 87E, 83E and 81E. The paperwork did not provide job titles for those grades or note that they corresponded to elected officials.
Dixon's salary is rising from $148,000 to $151,700, while Pratt's and Rawlings-Blake's go to $100,450 from $98,000. City Council Vice President Edward Reisinger will make $64,575, up from $63,000, and the other 13 members of the council will make $58,425, a raise from $57,000.
A spokesman for the mayor said the procedure for pay increases was approved by voters in 2006, when the City Charter was altered to create an independent panel to recommend pay for elected officials.
But officials offered no explanation for why the Board of Estimates documents were vague. Other salary changes approved by the board that week included position titles.
The agenda was prepared by aides to Pratt, the comptroller, who did not return a telephone message seeking comment.
Critics blasted the timing of the raises and the fact that elected leaders did not debate the possibility of skipping or postponing previously scheduled 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustments at a time of budget cutbacks triggered by falling tax receipts.
"It is not appropriate when we are in a recession," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who said she was not aware she had received a raise until a reporter called.
"It is inappropriate for us to get a cost-of-living wage increase when other people are losing their jobs and we are freezing hires," she said.
Bob Sledgeski, the head of the firefighters union, also criticized the action, saying: "Symbolically it sends a really poor message."
Glenard Middleton, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he hopes the raises signal that the mayor will be equally generous next year and recommend a similar increase to the workers he represents.
Robert Cherry, the head of the city police union, declined to comment.
Police officers, firefighters and unionized city employees received a 3 percent pay bump this year. Elected officials are not allowed to receive a pay raise unless at least one union group also gets a salary increase.
The vote on the elected officials' pay increase came the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and several weeks after Dixon announced that the city had to slash $36.5 million from the current year's $2.1 billion spending plan.
City officials plan to reach that target in part by freezing $2.2 million in raises to middle managers. The Police Department disbanded specialized units, shifting officers into regular patrol duties to curtail overtime expenses.
Dixon predicts next year will be worse, with a $65 million projected gap between revenue and expenses. She has asked agency heads to cut an average of 12.9 percent of their general fund appropriations. Proposals include rotating firehouse closures and reducing city trash collection to once a week.
Before last year, salaries of the mayor and other city elected officials were raised through legislation introduced by a City Council member and approved by the full body. A sitting City Council could not vote on its own salary, so raises would affect paychecks of the next elected council and mayor.
In practice, political realities would frequently limit increases. In 2004, council members scrapped a bill that would have raised salaries 6 percent, with one councilman citing "degrading" criticism at public meetings.
The salary for Baltimore's mayor was $60,000 a year as recently as 1995 and was $95,000 until 1999. When Martin O'Malley became the city's chief executive, pay was bumped to $108,000.
A 2006 City Charter amendment that garnered nearly 70 percent support from city voters created a compensation commission for elected officials in Baltimore, patterned after a similar body that recommends salaries for the governor and state legislators. The commission's recommendations become law unless the council votes down the actions.
In March 2007, the city commission recommended pay increases of 18 percent to 26 percent for elected officials and 2.5 percent annual adjustments after that. The council declined to vote on the recommendations, which became law.
But the Board of Estimates has to approve all significant city expenditures, said Ian Brennan, the mayor's spokesman. The pay increase was included with hundreds of other items on the board's agenda deemed to be noncontroversial and adopted together. Each member abstained on the vote for their own salary. The board's other two members, who are mayoral appointees, voted for each raise.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, who chairs the Board of Estimates, said the compensation commission was designed to "take the politics out of the process" of deciding politicians' pay raises. He declined to comment on why there was not any discussion about the vote.
The city's worsening financial situation is discussed often at Dixon's public events. Yesterday, while delivering remarks to city employees completing a leadership program, she said: "What we are going to have to do is do more with less and think smarter as we do it."
"Hopefully we don't have to impact people and their families," Dixon said. "But there is no guarantee we won't have layoffs."
Asked later whether the mayor would forgo pay raises next year, Brennan said that "everything is on the table."
When asked whether she would decline the raise, Clarke, the councilwoman, said: "Absolutely."