In Arundel, haves and have-nots

Anne Arundel County budget hearings don't begin until Monday, but the County Council is already indulging in an uncommon level of bickering. But it's not next year's $1.2 billion budget — and its controversial tax increase — that is causing tempers to flare.

Instead, it's the bizarre way the previous County Council chose to slash their own compensation. As a result of last year's actions, different members of the council are receiving different health benefits, an incongruity surely unique to the county.

Republicans Derek Fink and John J. Grasso publicly chastised fellow council members G. James Benoit and Daryl Jones, both Democrats, for accepting health insurance benefits that new council members (five of the 7-member body) are denied by law. Councilman Benoit, in turn, is angry that they would attack him for merely assuring the care of his chronically ill 7-year-old daughter.

The rhetoric has recently escalated, with Councilman Grasso suggesting the Democrats were "sucking the blood" of Anne Arundel County residents and Councilman Benoit promising Councilman Fink that he will respond "tenfold" if the health care issue is used for political gain.

The Republicans are correct in at least one respect: The previous council, including Messrs. Benoit and Jones, should never have approved eliminating health care benefits for new council members while grandfathering their own. Setting up such an inequity was remarkably foolish.

But it wasn't the only silly action taken by the previous council, which embraced a number of spending cuts for political show but minimal budgetary help. For instance, they eliminated county-owned cars for themselves and such positions as the county's state's attorney and the head of the county's public works department.

That may look sharp to tea party types, but these are jobs where people actually do get a 3 a.m. emergency call to conduct critical county business. Is it really an indulgence for the county to ensure that they can respond without hailing a cab?

The recession has certainly forced cutbacks and tough choices at all levels of government. But stripping council members of health care — the same benefit provided to the county's 4,100 full-time employees — is idiotic. What would be the point, to make sure that nobody runs for office who is not rich or employed full-time by a company that provides health insurance?

It is often said that government needs to be run more like a business. This is the polar opposite of how businesses treat their leadership teams. No CEO or senior manager of so large an organization loses basic health care benefits when times are hard. That only guarantees you get a worse CEO and management team and worse financial problems in the future.

Unfortunately, it's become fashionable in these times of populist politics to regard compensation of any kind given any elected official as a questionable expense. Certainly, there are excesses (pension benefits being the most common example), but basic health care insurance should not be regarded as some kind of political scandal.

The true idiocy of the last council's actions is revealed in the fact that the current council can't set things right. By law, they can only modify the compensation package of the council that is elected in 2014. County Executive John R. Leopold should have recognized this dilemma and intervened back when something could have been done about it last year.

Whether Councilmen Jones and Benoit want to voluntarily drop health insurance coverage is up to them — just as Mr. Grasso voluntarily elected to give his council salary to charity this year. But flogging the issue now in such a shrill and partisan manner merely raises the level of hostility within the council chambers. It's a distraction that can only cause the council to be less productive and could ultimately shortchange county taxpayers by a great deal more than the $20,000 in annual health care costs in question.

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