Public spurns raise recommendation

Commissioners feel residents' wrath

Friday, Jan. 15, 2010

Venomous attacks stung the air of the Charles County commissioners' meeting room Wednesday night as nearly a dozen residents took their turns at the microphone in a unanimous effort to convince the commissioners to vote down a pay hike.

"How much more can we give you at a time when people are hurting?" asked Gains Hopkins, a Charlotte Hall resident. "Unless the compensation committee knows something we don't, there's no evidence for this kind of [economic] improvement and that's a very good reason for all of you to say, ‘We are going to lay this aside.' There's absolutely no justifiable reason at this time to be taking salary increases."

"You want to sit up here and say how well-justified you are in getting increases. What planet are you from?" said La Plata resident George Grieninger. "Your salaries have averaged less than [a] 3.75 percent [increase]; I wish I could give my employees that kind of an increase every year."

"I, and other declared candidates, could take offense at comments made that pay increases are needed to attract competent candidates," said District 2 Democratic commissioner candidate Johnnie DeGiorgi. "How can anyone justify increasing elected officials' salaries … when county employees must cope with furloughs, possible layoffs, short staffing and increased caseloads?"

DeGiorgi was one of four candidates for public office to speak at the hearing, along with District 1 Democratic commissioner candidate Ken Robinson, District 2 Republican commissioner candidate Rick Campbell and District 28 Republican state delegate candidate Mike Phillips. All the candidates spoke against the raises.

After the public comments ended, Commissioner Gary V. Hodge (D) moved to address the proposal during a work session at the next commissioners' meeting Jan. 26.

Immediately after his suggestion commissioners' Vice President Edith J.Patterson (D) attempted to kill the measure that night, moving to reject the recommendations from the compensation commission.

"I know the compensation board has worked very hard and they made their recommendations with a good heart, but this is 2010 and I've listened to employees, I've read the e-mails … I don't have to wait until another work session," she said.

Her motion failed, however, when no one seconded it.

In November, commissioners' President F. Wayne Cooper (D) wrote a letter to the Maryland Independent explaining he would not be voting in favor of a salary increase for the president's position based on declining revenue and budget shortfalls.

He reiterated those sentiments prior to the start of the public comments, saying he would be voting no because of the recession, forced furloughs and having to "trim to the bone."

"This is a deliberate process, and tonight we heard from the public," Hodge said after the hearing. "We need the opportunity to consider the comments and consider the full report of the [compensation] committee."

On Thursday, Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) said while Patterson's motion would have addressed the issue of the county commissioners' salaries, there were still "numerous open questions" about the remaining raises for the other boards and positions named in the recommendations.

"Our citizens should appreciate that a commission took the time … to work out a plan for the next four years on how the county should compensate commissions and entities associated with county government," Collins said. "We have to be responsible in our decisions. It's important that [we] think through things. The decision will be one I think is in line with what the people are saying."

The unanimous negative feedback from citizens at the meeting should come as no surprise to the commissioners, who have taken heat on the matter since the issue flared up in the collective county temper in late November.

At the time, the Charles County Compensation Commission recommended, as required by county law, a four-year incremental $28,000 salary increase for the county commissioners' president seat and a nearly $24,000 boost for the other commissioner positions between 2011 and 2014.

This year Cooper will receive $58,000 and Patterson, Collins, Hodge and Commissioner Samuel N. Graves Jr. (D) will each earn $48,000.

If the bill is adopted without change, the commissioners' president will make $62,000 in 2011; $68,000 in 2012; $79,000 in 2013; and $90,000 in 2014. The other commissioners will make $52,700, $57,800, $62,150 and $76,500 each year, respectively.

The new salaries would not take effect until after the 2010 election.

The compensation commission is charged with reviewing a range of salaries and reimbursements for officials in the county government every four years.

In this most recent recommendation, the commission also included a salary increase for three boards and two commissions, though none of the five is raised by more than several hundred dollars.

But while the county commissioners are required to hear the recommendations for board member salaries, they do not necessarily have to accept them unchanged. In fact, as long as the board does not increase the recommendations of the compensation commission, the five leaders can stagger the timing of the salary increases, reject them totally or make any other adjustment in between.

The recommendation came only months after the commissioners approved cuts in the fiscal 2010 budget, including a series of 10 furlough days without pay for all employees, along with a 3 percent cut across the board for most county departments' budgets and 2 percent from the board of education and sheriff's office; all to help ease the pain from cuts in state funding and lower-than-expected tax revenues.

The compensation commission explained in its official report that the increases were designed to match the growing responsibilities of the commissioners and also encourage future candidates to run for election without the fear of losing financially.

The staggered increases were also included to recognize the struggling economy, Chairman Phil McDonagh said in November.

The commission also pointed out that since 1986 the county commissioners' salaries have averaged less than a 3.75 percent annual increase.

Federal cost-of-living figures show inflation averaging 4.1 percent over that time.

In contrast, Frederick County, which is projected to have 88,650 more residents than Charles County's 144,950 next year at 233,600, according to U.S. Census data from the state of Maryland Web site, pays its commissioners' president and four other commissioners $45,000, according to a document from the Maryland Association of Counties, "Salary Survey of Maryland Counties," for fiscal 2010. It has an operating budget of $431 million.

Washington County will be about 5,000 people larger than Charles County in 2010, with an estimated 149,250 but pays its president and four other commissioners $33,000 and $30,000, respectively, according to the MaCo document. Its fiscal 2010 operating budget was $344 million.

The Charles County Web site indicates its 2010 operating budget is $311 million.

Calvert County's estimated 2010 population is 91,750, according to the census figures, with an operating budget of $259 million, according to the county's Web site. Its commissioners' president makes $44,500 in fiscal 2010 and four other commissioners make $42,000, according to the MaCo document.

St. Mary's County's estimated 2010 population is 105,400, with an operating budget of $199.3 million, according to the county Web site. The commissioners' president makes $42,000 and four other commissioners make $37,000, according to the MaCo document.

Though none of the county commissioners has commented on the alternatives to accepting the recommendations as they are, Cooper said in the letter to the Maryland Independent that he would not be voting in favor of an increase for the president's position.

The other four have remained largely mum on the topic, though Graves acknowledged last month he felt the salary was at the point that was comparable to the responsibilities of the job. If the county went through another series of furlough days, however, Graves said he would cut a check similar to the one he wrote this past autumn that equaled those missed days relative to his position.

While the Charles County commissioners have chosen to move forward the legislative process for passing the recommendations, several Maryland counties and the state's General Assembly have taken a very public position against any raises for legislators.

Baltimore County officials declined to introduce legislation that would have increased the salary of the next executive by 8 percent and the annual wages of council members elected in 2010 by 2 percent.

Howard County's elected officials this month received an automatic cost-of-living pay increase that is tied to the consumer price index. The (Baltimore) Sun reported that Executive Ken Ulman and council members will donate their extra money to charity or write a check to the county's treasury.

Just last week, a proposed one-time $2,000 salary boost for state legislators for 2013 or 2014 was turned down by legislative leaders in light of the expected $2 billion budget shortfall in next fiscal year's budget.