Trying to set political salaries four years into the future is a task fraught with peril, which is why Howard County executive Ken Ulman said he's writing checks for more than $11,000 in salary givebacks this year.
In 2005, a citizens commission named to suggest pay levels wanted to keep the executive and County Council elected in 2006 from falling way behind the pay curve. The members included an inflation-based cost-of-living escalator in their recommended formula. But this year, the recession threw a monkey wrench into the plan.
Forced to furlough county workers without pay and deny annual pay raises, elected officials felt they should keep in step, but had no way to alter their pay except by donating a percentage.
But Ulman and assistant county solicitor Lynn Robeson warned members of this year's compensation commission not to tie future raises to what general employees get each year.
"I'd hate to see something that says you only get a raise if county employees get a COLA. That's my only strong advice," Ulman told the group at a meeting Thursday night in the county's Columbia offices. He doesn't want employees to feel that elected officials' decisions on workers' annual pay might be linked to what is paid the politicians.
"Keep it out of the hands of elected officials so there's no incentive one way or another," he said.
Robeson reinforced that with a legal recommendation, since current state law says elected officials may not determine their own pay during a term of office.
"You can't tie compensation to what happens at the general county employee level," she said. If the panel recommends annual increases for elected officials and the economy tanks, they can write checks, as they have done this year.
"That's how you do it," she said.
Still, county budget director Raymond S. Wacks warned the commission members about concentrating too hard on the current recession.
"You should not base your decision on the facts today," he said, because Howard County's economy is likely to rebound, driven partly by an increase in professionals coming because of the county's high quality of life and good schools.
Lonnie Robbins, the county's chief administrative officer, also spoke to the group, composed of lawyers, business people and one county teacher.
All five County Council members have already testified before the seven-member commission.
A public hearing on the pay issue is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the county's temporary offices in the Ascend One building, 8930 Stanford Blvd. in east Columbia.
The commission is required by the county charter to study pay for elected officials once every four years. Final recommendations are to go to the County Council by mid December, and the council then has the final say. Members can adopt or reduce recommendations from the commission, but may not increase them. The new rates take effect for those officials who take office after next year's elections.
Currently, salary for council members is $52,892, with $1,000 extra for the chairman. The county executive is paid $158,675, though all the officials have pledged to return a portion of their pay in solidarity with other county employees, who got no pay raises this year and are being forced to take unpaid furloughs. The elected officials are due a cost-of-living increase of just less than 1 percent in December, based on the inflation rate.
Three of Ulman's key cabinet officials make more than he does, and senior county school officials also make more, he noted. School superintendent Sydney Cousin's salary is more than $220,000, though he too has donated his raise this year.
But Wacks said the county must pay some key people more to keep them from taking higher-paying jobs in private industry.
"It is becoming more difficult to fill those positions with qualified people, because qualified people can get really good salaries," the budget director said. Even the county executive's job "is becoming more of a corporate executive-type job."
Thursday night's session ranged sometimes far afield, from the county's assessable base and tax rate in 1952 to Wacks' best guess about when the local economy and revenues will turn around.
Ulman reinforced what council members had said, stressing that salaries should be high enough to attract qualified people, but not so high that people seek the jobs for the pay. His job is difficult and time consuming, he said, adding that he's not complaining and that he loves it.
"I started today at 7 a.m.," he said, adding that he had two more stops Thursday night after the 6 p.m. commission meeting. "My Blackberry is by my bedside. I get calls from the fire chief, the police chief. Even going to the grocery store - it's hard to get through the aisles sometimes. I get a lot of work done at Costco," he joked.
Also, like council members, he said, citizens expect almost instant answers to their e-mails. A two-hour meeting away from his phone can result in 20 new messages, he said. "Technology has intensified the job," Ulman said.
"The problem is we've got to craft something that lasts four years," commission member Howard Rensin said.
"I would do something that is fixed and leave it to [elected] people to take it or not," Ulman said about the salaries.