The wrong time to discuss raises

Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009

If all goes according to the plan recently made public by a county commission on compensation for local officials, the Charles County commissioners' salaries will rise by more than $20,000 over four years, from $58,000 in 2010 to $94,000 in 2014 for the commissioners' president and from $48,000 to $76,500 for the other commissioners.

The argument made by the Charles County Compensation Commission is that the work the commissioners do has gotten harder and more complex, and the number of hours they spend doing that work has grown along with the complexity. That is certainly true, though it seems to us a good deal of what they consider their duties is little more than public exposure for political purposes; attending community events, having pictures taken with charities and children's groups and the like.

But, sure, the county has grown over the last decades and it takes more knowledge and more hours to get the job done.

Our objection to the notion is not so much that the commissioners don't need a salary hike, but that now is a rotten time to be discussing one. Subordinate to that objection, but still relevant, is the misguided notion expressed by the compensation commission that qualified people will not take the job unless it is more lucrative.

To dispose of the latter objection is the work of a mere moment. There are folks who have filed so far, a year before the election and months before the filing deadline, to run for commissioner; and we know of several other people who are considering a run but who have not yet filed. When we interviewed some of the declared candidates — Ken Robinson, Rick Campbell, Mike Phillips, Jim Thompson and Johnnie DeGiorgi — about the proposal, they scoffed at the idea of the raises and the idea that more money will or should be a factor in attracting people to run for the job. As for the question of who is qualified, that is a matter for the judgment of the voters of Charles County.

The commissioners could not possibly have chosen a worse time to consider giving board members a raise. In the past several months they have laid off county employees, forced remaining county employees to take 10 fewer paydays through mandatory furloughs, imposed a salary freeze and a hiring freeze, and have made 2 percent cuts to schools and the sheriff's office and 3 percent cuts to every other government department. The commissioners have put people out of work, cut their pay and curtailed services to the citizens of Charles County and yet they deserve a raise? Really?

And their quibble that any increase will come after the election, and so it might not be them in office, is a red herring. Two sitting commissioners have already filed to run, Samuel N. Graves Jr. and Reuben B. Collins II, and none of the rest of the group has given any indication that he or she is not planning to defend his or her seat. Though it's not guaranteed that this set of commissioners will reap the rewards of the raise, this set of commissioners certainly expects to reap those rewards.

These commissioners have a history of being tone deaf to the political fallout from their decisions. They voted themselves brand-new SUVs paid for by the taxpayers, nifty new digs in the government building and extra security last year, and seemed unable to understand why that bothered people. This latest, though, is the cherry atop the political suicide sundae.

Commissioners' President F. Wayne Cooper's response is typical in being slightly more clumsy than the rest. He first told a reporter that he would accept the raise if the economy had improved, then wrote a letter after the anti-raise furor swept the community saying he would not accept it given the current economic climate. Graves said he would return 10 days of the raise if county employees were furloughed again, and commissioners' Vice President Edith J. Patterson said the real point of the exercise was to try to determine what their work was actually worth. Collins chose not to comment. Gary V. Hodge did not return calls on the subject.

Contemplating enormous pay increases during the worst recession in 80 years, when many, many Charles County citizens are feeling the pinch of reduced hours, lost jobs, even homelessness, is the height of arrogance and disconnection from the people who put these commissioners in office.

They should be ashamed.