Casting their votes in front of about 100 angry county employees, the Howard County Council voted 3-2 last night to abolish a law designed to give county employees a 5 percent pay raise each year.
The employees didn't stick around for the rest of the meeting -- leaving en masse amid loud sighs, scattered boos and more than one curse under the breath.
Outside in the hallway, the police officers, sheriff's deputies, firefighters and laborers -- most still in uniform -- gathered around their respective union leaders. They plotted their next move, although they did not seem hopeful.
"I feel as though, countywide, all employees are getting shafted," 17-year utilities worker Bobby Jones said, summing up the sentiment in the hallway.
In recent weeks, union leaders had met with council members and were hoping for support from Dennis R. Schrader of North Laurel, considered the most moderate of three Republicans on the council. He is considered the swing vote on many council issues.
But in the end, Mr. Schrader went along with his two Republican colleagues -- Darrel Drown of Ellicott City and Charles C. Feaga of west Howard County.
"This bill drives home the fact that our personnel system is obsolete," he said during the meeting.
The Republicans point out that the existing law has been bypassed for the last five years when there has not been enough money for 5 percent raises.
Under the law, county employees who qualified for merit increases received a two-step pay raise -- or 5 percent. And nearly 99 percent of workers qualified for the raise, said county personnel officials. Employees need only receive a rating of "satisfactory" or higher.
County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who proposed the bill, and the Republicans on the council want to tie pay increases to a more precise evaluation procedure.
They say that by giving supervisors more control over payroll spending, they will help save jobs as the county cuts its spending during the next two years.
The two Democrats on the council -- C. Vernon Gray of east Columbia and Mary C. Lorsung of west Columbia -- voted against the bill.
"I see a clear pattern of undermining the merit system," Mr. Gray said, speaking of the bill and other recent measures approved by the council. " We've already started down a slippery slope towards a political patronage system."