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A citizens commission is recommending modest pay increases for the next Howard County executive and five-member council, despite falling revenues from the recession that forced officials this year to voluntarily cut their own pay via donations.

The group, which is appointed once each term under a county charter requirement, voted to increase the next county executive's pay $2,500 per year, and County Council pay by a one-time $500 increment, all starting in December 2010, when the next crop of officials are to be sworn in. All six elected next year would also receive annual cost-of-living increases based on the consumer price index. The group also recommended increasing the differential paid the chairman from $1,000 to $2,500.

Council members now earn $52,892, with an automatic raise of just under 1 percent, increasing it about $500 next month. Members figured that if adopted, their recommendations would bring County Council pay close to $60,000 a year by 2014, depending on inflation. County Executive Ken Ulman's salary is $158,675, with the inflation adjustment due to bring it to about $160,000 next month.

Two of the votes, for the chairman's differential and the executive's pay, were 5-0, while council pay was approved, 4-1, with Howard Rensin objecting to any increase beyond the automatic inflation adjustment. Two members were absent.

The seven-member commission will present its ideas next month to the County Council, which may then either adopt or lower them after a bill is introduced in January. The council can't increase the recommended amounts.

They had two goals, members said at a meeting Tuesday night. They wanted to signal to elected officials that their many hours of work are appreciated; and keep them from falling behind on pay over the next term, while also not suggesting too-generous raises in a down economy.

"Even a raise of $500 is sending a message that they are valued," said Mary Marker, a teacher and the only woman on the panel, though Rensin said $500 would not "make a hoot of difference one way or another."

Steve Sass, the group's chairman, liked Marker's idea of "signaling approval," he said.

"It's modest, but it also represents that we value the position," said Damani Ingram, another member.

"I'm not saying they're not worth more, but I think that's a decent amount," said Allen Cornell, a member of the Compensation Commission. "I'm OK with it, just no gift cards," Cornell said, in a joking reference to the trial of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was accused of stealing gift cards meant for poor children.

Sass wondered if such a small raise would cause council pay to lose ground over time compared with other county pay rates.

"Everybody's losing ground. Why should we single them out?" said Rensin, who participated by telephone.

Members generally agreed that while they were loath to boost pay too much for part-time council members, they believed the executive is vastly underpaid for the work done. Several county department heads, school officials and Health Department doctors make more than the county executive.

School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin's salary is $265,000, plus $102,715 in other compensation, both deferred and for expenses, though he is appointed, not elected.

"I think the salary is too low," Cornell said, though Rensin said Ulman "didn't seem to be chafing ... [over] his salary" when the commission interviewed him.

"This is a job that's heavily political," Rensin said, and money isn't the main consideration.

"I don't think we should compare it to the superintendent of schools, though I'd like to fill out an application," Rensin said jokingly. "We don't want to embarrass him [Ulman]."

The task is tougher for this commission because in 2005, when the last group convened, salaries were below most other jurisdictions, and the economy was booming. That's why that earlier group recommended including an automatic cost-of-living increase based on the consumer price index.

Faced with the severe recession and the need to trim employee pay raises and furlough county workers, the elected officials donated some of their pay either to charity or back to the county, as did Cousin. Under state law, public officials can't change their own pay levels during a four-year term.

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