Getting a Rise out of Harford

May 25, 1993

Outrage! That's our first reaction to the bill to give Harford County Council members a $5,000 raise next year. It's our second reaction, too, recalling the 30 percent pay hike that the council voted for itself in 1990.

Over four years, that would be a 65 percent increase. What working stiff has seen that kind of raise? Many have endured pay freezes (Harford County's non-elected employees, for example) and the slim consolation of avoiding unemployment.

It doesn't stop there. The bill drafted by Council President Jeffrey Wilson and two councilwomen proposes further increases to hike their pay another 20 percent between 1994 and 1996. They argue that the Harford council's work is full-time, and that its pay pales beside that of legislators in much larger Montgomery and Baltimore counties.

To deflect voter backlash, they note that the raises would go into effect only after the 1994 election. They also propose a modest 4 percent raise for the county executive, which incumbent Eileen Rehrmann flatly says she does not support.

Yes, Harford County is growing and council member duties have become more taxing (pun intended) but we don't think this quantum leap in salary is warranted, considering the fragile economic situation of so many Harford residents.

Raising the compensation to $23,000 a year (from $18,500) won't get any more work from the local legislators, and it won't do anything to attract more qualified candidates to run. Full-time sheriff's deputies start at barely $20,000 a year, and they are in greater need than the politicians.

Council members, whether they have a job or are retired or share a spouse's income, didn't seek the office for the money. They ran for the prestige and power and civic fulfillment. Mr. Wilson has three other jobs -- minister, farmer, journalist -- in addition to being council president, which pays $20,000. A council pay raise won't persuade him to give up one of those jobs. Susan Heselton and Theresa Pierno, who don't list outside jobs, may have mercenary interests in sponsoring the bill.

Harford is becoming more urbanized and metropolitan, but most of the county still takes a skeptical, small-town view of elected officials and their motivations. Jacking up council pay could inspire a new anti-incumbent wave in next year's election. A modest increase, perhaps $1,000, could be warranted as recognition of expanding duties. But 65 percent? That's a return to the Greedy '80s, not in sync with the Frugal '90s.

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