Executive does 11th-hour about-face on pay raises

May 31, 1992|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff Writer

For more than two months, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann had been adamant on one point: no raises for employees. Times were tough, she said, and the county couldn't afford to pay workers more.

Then, two weeks ago, the executive did an abrupt about-face, promising eligible employees raises if they worked to save as much money as possible and if the County Council raised permit and licensing fees.

When the executive delivered on her promise Tuesday, the move stunned some council members and added some $2.5 million to her "no-frills" budget.

Why did Rehrmann change her mind at 11th hour? And if the budget was as tight as she suggested, where did the money come from?

The reasons include unexpected savings, the County Council's flexing its political muscle and compromise on the part of the executive and the council.

Council members said last week that Rehrmann had failed to convince them her proposed $188.6 million operating budget was truly "no-frills."

Careful review, they said, convinced them they could cut the budget by about $1.3 million and use that money for raises.

Council members can cut money from all departments, but can add only to the education budget. Thus, to give employees in other departments raises, the council needed Rehrmann's cooperation -- in the form of budget amendments.

The raises increased Rehrmann's original operating budget of $188.6 million to $191 million for the 1993 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The council unanimously passed the budget Tuesday.

Rehrmann said she changed her mind about giving raises after hearing encouraging financial news and insists that she did not simply give in to the council's demands.

"It's not like we came up with the money out of the blue," she said.

Rehrmann lists some reasons for her decision:

* The council agreed to pass legislation raising license and permit fees -- a move expected to raise about $500,000 in new revenue.

* County department chiefs have saved $1 million from the current budget year that can be carried over to the new budget to cover raises.

* The Board of Education offered to save $250,000 to put toward step increases, raises given annually after good job performance evaluations.

* The council compromised and cut $600,000 from Rehrmann's initial proposal and redirected the money toward raises.

Harford also got some good news last week about its share of state income tax revenue, the executive said.

John Scotten, deputy county treasurer, said Harford's share of state income tax revenue should add to the county budget $1.37 million more than originally expected. That would raise total income tax revenue projections to $51.9 million. Some of that $1.37 million will make up the remainder of the $2.5 million needed to give step raises to eligible employees.

Some council members believe the budget compromise marked a turning point in relations between the executive and legislative branches -- relations some labeled "strained" the past two years.

"I hope it will be the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship with the executive branch," said Jeffrey D. Wilson, council president, who praised Rehrmann and her staff "for working together" with the council.

Councilman Robert S. Wagner said, "I don't know what prompted the excellent working relationship. It was a monumental change."

But other council members argue that the council's proposal to trim about $1.3 million from the executive's budget prompted her sudden change of heart.

"We started to slash the budget. It was a matter of forcing their hand," said Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C.

"We just started pulling out money, and that created that spirit of compromise."

Councilman Barry T. Glassman, R-District D, agreed.

"How much was pressure and political posturing and how much was conciliation, I don't know," said Glassman.

"Let's just say I think they saw the light."

But Larry Klimovitz, director of administration, insists the budget compromise "was a package we put together because we thought it was an equitable way of redirecting the money the council planned to cut. That was the spirit of cooperation."

But will that cooperative spirit continue?

"When cows fly," quipped Councilwoman Susan B. Heselton, R-District A.

"We did a good job working together on the budget, but we were down to the 11th hour. Will it continue? I certainly hope so. I have my doubts."

Last year, no county government employees got step or cost-of-living salary improvements.

The budget compromise means about half of Harford's 1,116 county government employees, and about half of the public school's 1,880 teachers, will qualify in the new fiscal year for a 3.5 percent step raise. An employee

earning an average salary of $27,000 would take home $36 more every two weeks.

Employees at the top of the pay scale are ineligible for the step increases, so they'll get no raises for the second straight year.

Members of the Harford County Education Association, which represents about 1,500 teachers, said they believe the budget includes enough money to give all employees -- not just teachers -- an additional 3 percent cost-of-living raise.

That would ensure all employees get a raise, said Christine Haggett, HCEA president.

"I believe by the end of the fiscal year, there will still be a large surplus that will allow the administration -- if they wish -- to do what we've asked all along: a 3 percent cost-of-living raise in addition to the step," Haggett said.

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