Who would have thought it would be so hard to give people money?
Late last year when it became clear Harford County was in a reasonably stable financial situation, Harford County Executive David R. Craig announced plans to give county employees — including school system staff — one-time bonuses of $625 prior to Christmas, with the possibility that a second similar bonus would be forthcoming later this year.
The move was certainly tinged in politics. Craig has made it clear he plans to run for governor when his second full term as county executive ends two years from now and he won't be eligible for a third. Public sector employees are an important part of Maryland's electorate, and anyone seeking statewide office needs to do well with that group of voters.
There's more to the tale, however, than just election preparations.
Strangely, while most county employees were glad to have the bonus, which came in the aftermath of a few years of austere county budgets, the teachers' union — the Harford County Education Association — held up on the bonuses until last week. The union's leadership claimed the bonuses shouldn't be one-time and were coming at the expense of permanent 3 percent raises the teachers' union had been expecting, but which never materialized, for teachers as part of the current fiscal year budget.
If viewed from a very narrow perspective, the teacher's union argument could have been seen to make a valid point. That narrow perspective would, however, not include looking at what has been going on throughout Maryland and across the country. Harford County has managed to get through the financial downturn, at least to date, with relatively little pain. There was a voluntary buy-out, county budgets have been flat for three years and there were furlough days, but there haven't been county tax increases, layoffs or threats to slash services. Most public sector employees haven't been getting raises, but neither have they been losing their jobs.
Looking only at this aspect of the picture, it would be easy to conclude that the budget was balanced on the backs of public employees – teachers included.
This perspective, however, ignores the reality that Harford County isn't typical with regard to being on firm financial footing. Tax increases, layoffs, furloughs, cuts in services and other fairly harsh public policy decisions, including bankruptcy, are the order of the day for local governments across the country.
Agree with how he did it or not, Craig has presided over a government that has fared much better than other county governments, to the benefit of the citizenry and county employees alike. And when it looked like the financial situation was going to be a little better than expected, he moved to thank the public employees. This move was not without its critics, as there were plenty of taxpayers who made it clear they would have liked a tax refund rather than see bonuses paid to county staff.
In this light, railing about not getting a 3 percent raise last year (especially in an economy when a lot of people in the private and public sectors are going without raises) was a blunder akin to the "let them eat cake" quip often attributed to Marie Antoinette when she was told the French peasants had no bread.
Fortunately for the leaders of the Harford County Education Association, they're not going to suffer the French queen's fate, though the union itself might end up with a new head. After all, the only thing the leadership seems to have accomplished for the rank and file was to delay payment of a Christmas bonus until after Groundhog Day.