Hold that salary line

March 09, 1994

The Baltimore County Council was supposed to vote last month to set its salary level for the next four years. But the council decided at a late hour to postpone the pay debate until next month, or perhaps May, when it ponders County Executive Roger Hayden's budget proposal for fiscal 1995.

Of course, if the seven council members had their druthers, they'd delay this politically sensitive issue for a lot longer than two months. This is an election year, after all. The members know there are plenty of county residents waiting to clobber any elected official who would dare to give himself a raise, particularly when the effects of last year's layoffs and service reductions are being felt.

What the council should do is take a simple step that would achieve the rare combination of being both politically safe and rational: namely, freeze the salary at the $30,900 rate that members now accept. (The chairman gets an extra $3,000.)

The previous council approved raises that would have boosted the pay of each member to $36,600 as of this year. However, the class of 1990 has declined its pay increases, locking in at $30,900 for the entire term. The members have wisely deduced there's no reason they should get raises while the county has been struggling through a recession and government employees have gone without cost-of-living adjustments since January 1991.

Nor is there any reason the next group of council members should be paid a penny more than the current rate. Even with a salary at nearly $6,000 below the official level, the council is the highest-paid legislative body in the Baltimore area.

Granted, Baltimore County is second in population only to Baltimore City in the metro region, and City Council matters are handled by 18 members (a ridiculous number in itself). Yet an annual salary of close to $31,000 is more than ample for what is supposed to be a part-time job. Moreover, real dangers would be posed by raising the pay level to something approximating full-time status. Among these are the possibilities that members would create unnecessary work for themselves and challenge the county executive's power in a manner that would cause more gridlock than anything else. (See United States Congress.)

Another potential hazard: Candidates would run more for the money than for the chance to serve the public. The current rate of $30,900 ought to ensure that this part-time position continues to attract mostly civic-minded public servants and still offers fair and adequate compensation.

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