What to do with those awkward pay raises for officials?

Baltimore Sun

Howard County's elected officials are vowing to donate their automatic cost-of-living pay raises to charity or to government, though there's a difference of opinion on how to handle last year's much larger increase in coming years.

New pay rates for County Executive Ken Ulman and the five County Council members took effect Friday, when an automatic 0.96 percent increase based on the consumer price index became law. Last December, the elected officials got a 4.9 percent increase, but all said they donated the extra money either to charities or back to the county. In addition, they all voluntarily took pay cuts equal to the four- and five-day unpaid furloughs imposed on county workers this fiscal year.

But since the revenue crunch on local and state government is intensifying instead of easing, the raises signal another round of awkward decisions.

The new salaries are $160,198 for Ulman and $53,400 for council members. The chairman gets $1,000 more.

"Yes, I am going to give back last year's raise and this year's raise," Ulman said. "That's a decision I've made personally," he added, noting that he was not suggesting what other officials should do. Ulman said that between the two annual raises and the 2 percent cut from a five-day unpaid furlough, he'll give up more than $12,000 of his pay this year. The decision can be evaluated annually, he said, but raises now "seem out of whack" with conditions generally.

County teachers got a 1 percent raise this year and firefighters got more under their contract, while many other county workers got longevity increases. But many received no pay raises. Fiscal 2011 promises to be even tougher.

Greg Fox, the council's only Republican, said he is willing to do the same as Ulman, as are Democrats Calvin Ball, Jen Terrasa and Courtney Watson. Watson said she feels council pay should not increase in the new term after next year's elections either.

Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, disagreed slightly.

Sigaty said she felt that donating last year's raise for one year, plus the furlough payment this year and also donating this year's raise, is enough.

"I've given three times," she said.

Fox wondered whether it might not make more sense to simply lower pay for the next council to 2008 levels instead of annually donating increases. The county executive received $151,263 before the December 2008 raise. Council members got $50,421.

A citizens commission studying pay for next term's officials is recommending continuing annual cost-of-living adjustments for the next four years, plus a one-time $500 increase for council members' base pay and $2,500 per year more for the executive. The commission also suggested paying the council chair $2,500 per year extra, instead of the current differential of $1,000.

Ulman said he'd allow that to be decided without his public comment.

Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat, made her feelings on the issue very clear, though others said they'd discuss it when the bill comes before them in January.

"I oppose any increase in council pay," Watson said.

The marathon fixThe small fight over how big the supermarket at Turf Valley should be has morphed into a struggle over how hard it is for voters to petition a government action to referendum. What seemed like a quick legislative fix in March has become more of a marathon.

Turf Valley critic Marc Norman and his allies received lots of sympathy from elected officials who think his group got a raw deal, but no champion has emerged in the General Assembly for a bill to change the strict state law reinforced by Maryland's highest court.

"We're looking for our county and state leaders to take the lead on this," Norman said.

The residents, aided by grocery store unions, collected more than 9,000 signatures within the deadline and said they followed every rule they could find on the county election board Web site. They needed only 5,000 valid names, and the first batch passed muster with the board.

But board attorney Gerald M. Richman discovered that the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in a Montgomery County case in December 2008 that Maryland law requires signatures to be exactly the same as names on the board's official voter rolls, and that printed names on petitions must exactly match the signatures.

The Howard board then re-examined the first group of signatures and found that the vast majority did not pass muster. They disqualified the petitions, killing the petition drive, though Norman and others are still trying to reverse that in state courts.

Howard County state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, who last session introduced emergency legislation to liberalize the rules to allow a "reasonable standard of certainty" on the validity of signatures and make the change retroactive, said he's not sure if he'll repeat that effort in 2010.

When his bill got a hearing late in March, Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chairwoman of the Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, and the vice chairman, Sen. Roy Dyson, both sounded supportive.

"We are going to change it," Dyson said during the hearing, referring to the strict state law. Conway, told her name would be invalid if she signed "Joan C. Conway," said "that's not reasonable." Yet the bill died in committee without explanation.

All eyes are on Conway now on this issue.

Kasemeyer said he's deferring to her, and Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who also sympathizes with the right to go to referendum, said she too is waiting.

"They really had a bona fide point," Conway said recently. "It seemed to be grossly unfair to me," she added. Despite comments like that, Conway did not commit to introduce a bill in 2010. She is scheduled to meet this week with a delegation from the state and county chapters of the League of Women Voters, who also want change.

"We want a piece of legislation to change the rules," said Grace Kubofcik, who heads the Howard league chapter. "I'm not so sure about the retroactive part. That didn't happen. I think the best we can hope for is [a change effective in] July," she said last month.

Norman said his group is "grateful" for Kasemeyer's efforts, but he wasn't awarding compliments to others.

"The silence of the other local politicians is deafening," he said, vowing that the signature issue "is absolutely an election year issue" for 2010.

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