ANNAPOLIS -- State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein says he was just going along with a long-standing request from the Maryland Court Clerks' Association by waiting until after the general election to raise the salaries for clerks and registers of wills.
But C. Merritt Pumphrey, the clerk of the Howard County Circuit Court and head of the association, said it did not matter to the clerks when their salaries for the next four years were set. They just went along with Mr. Goldstein's advice to wait until after the election, he said.
Whatever the reason for putting off the decision, Mr. Goldstein and the Board of Public Works waited until this week -- three weeks after the Nov. 6 election and just days before the clerks and registers of wills take the oath of office for new four-year terms -- to bestow 25 percent pay increases upon them.
Clerks who now receive $45,000 a year, the current maximum, will earn $56,250 annually over the next four years. Clerks earning $40,000, the minimum, will go up to $50,000.
Similarly, the salaries for registers of wills will go up from $45,000 to $56,250 for those receiving the maximum, and from $37,500 to for those on the minimum.
Baltimore and each of the counties have a clerk and a register of wills.
Mr. Goldstein, who was just re-elected to his ninth four-year term as comptroller, said the board has set the salaries for clerks in late November, after an election, every four years since he has been in office.
"The association has always asked us not to set salaries until after the election. That has been the practice ever since I have been comptroller," he said.
Although the 1990 General Assembly permitted the clerks' salaries to be raised to a maximum of $60,000 any time after July 1, Mr. Goldstein said he never discussed the salary-level issue until this past Monday, when he took it up with his staff. He denied that any decision was made before the election and then withheld from the public. The budgets of the clerks have been under the control of the comptroller's office for the past four years.
He said his office, and later the board, settled on a slightly lower figure than permitted as a reflection of the current bad economic times.
"We had a public meeting right there in front of God and everybody. There wasn't nothing discussed behind the doors. It was discussed right there at the board meeting," he said.
At the board meeting, Mr. Goldstein -- who has fought publicly with the clerks association over other matters -- suggested that perhaps more challengers might have lined up to run for court clerk or register of wills if the new salaries had been publicized.
Mr. Pumphrey, who was defeated this month for re-election in Howard County, rejected the idea.
"You think someone's beating down the door to get a $45,000 a year job?" he asked. "There's plenty of other jobs out there."
Mr. Goldstein said clerks and registers of wills alike complained to his office after they learned this week that the proposed salary levels would be below the maximum authorized by the legislature. "I don't care what salaries you give people, they're never satisfied," Mr. Goldstein said. "They're either too high, or too low. This was the best we can do."