More than 40 county employees showed up at a County Council meeting last night to protest a bill they believe would slow their advancement to the top pay scales in county government.
The bill would limit annual merit raises to 2 1/2 percent of yearly salaries.
Prior to the 1992, when the recession hit the county hard, workers received merit raises of 5 percent of their annual salaries for satisfactory performance. That system allowed them to reach the top pay grade in seven years, council members were told.
Under the bill discussed last night, the workers said, it would take them 15 years to reach the top pay grade.
And that is unfair, said Ronald Schwedes, an inspector who came to the county six years ago.
"When I was hired, I looked at the steps and realized it would take me seven years to reach the final grade," Mr. Schwedes said. He said he was willing to take less money initially because he knew that he would soon be making the top salary for his position.
His progress was put on hold a couple of years ago, he said, when the county stopped paying merit increases because of the recession. "I'm about halfway there now," he said, "but if the merit increase [formula] is changed, I'll reach longevity [pay] before I complete my merit raises. Fifteen years is a long time."
Mr. Schwedes said he works with people who have similar or lesser qualifications than he has but have already reached top scale. To change the system now is not fair, he said.
Jim Fitzgerald, president of the Howard County Police Association, told the council that four officers have left the department in the past four months and more will leave if salaries are not comparable to those in nearby jurisdictions.
"Three years ago, we were receiving 5 percent," he said. "All we are asking is to get back to where we were. The county is in the black and doing well. This legislation should be vetoed."
Merit raises were eliminated entirely for one year, and two years ago county employees were furloughed a week without pay to cover revenue shortfalls. Now, employees say, they should be rewarded and returned to the old system.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker proposed giving employees a 2 1/2 percent merit raise in the fiscal 1995 budget along with a 3 percent cost of living raise. The cost of living raise could grow to 4 percent in January if revenues reach a certain level.
Employees said they appreciate that proposal but don't want to take what they feel is a backward step. "County employees did an excellent job in weathering the storm," firefighter Dennis E. Beard said. But "somebody's playing games" with the pay raise limitation.
County Personnel Administrator P. William Herndon said the bill was intended to ensure that employees received raises, not take them away. Unless the bill is passed, employees would not receive a raise at all, he said.
In other action last night, tobacco industry lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano told the council he was "aghast" that they were considering a resolution urging county businesses to get rid of their cigarette vending machines -- especially those that are accessible to minors.
"You took an oath to uphold the law of Maryland and the Court of Appeals very clearly, very recently, very unequivocally made it clear" that the state has complete jurisdiction over cigarette vending machines, he said. The resolution, he said, is an attempt to "intimidate and bully" local businesses into submission.
"If [the resolution] passes, I will take it into court and I will sue and the courts will uphold my clients," Mr. Bereano told council members. "I am absolutely confident the resolution will declared invalid."