Many public workers said to be overpaid Ecker-hired consultant also finds employees often work too little

June 26, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Republicans seeking to overhaul Howard County's personnel system got new ammunition yesterday in a consultant's report that says many of the county's 1,800 workers are overpaid and under-worked under a rigid, outdated system.

The $55,000 report, produced for Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker by the Organizational Consulting Center in San Diego, is based largely on comments from 120 of the county's top managers.

Among its conclusions:

Most county workers -- with the exception of public safety employees -- are overpaid by 18 percent compared with the market, according to a 1994 survey of local government personnel.

The report recommends, among other things, freezing the salaries of positions that earn better than the market rate until the market catches up.

Thirty-eight percent of county employees work only 35 hours a week. The report recommends standardizing either a 37.5- or 40-hour work week for county employees.

County employees scale the steps of the pay system too quickly, leading to high salary costs. The report recommends spreading out step increases and eliminating $1,000 longevity bonuses at years 12 and 16.

The county gives raises with little or no regard for the performance of county employees. The report recommends a system called "pay-for-performance" in which supervisors can set the salaries of their subordinates based on evaluations.

The report also recommends that the county begin a system in which teams of employees look for ways to save money. Those that discover savings would get to pocket a percentage of the profit.

County union officials, who had not been given copies of the report by last night, reacted skeptically when told of its major points. They noted the similarity between the consultant's suggestions and Ecker's own views.

"A lot of these studies, the consultant is working for someone," said Dale Chase, president of the public employees' union representing 300 electricians, mechanics and others. "They're getting paid to tell them what they want to hear."

Kevin Henry, president of the union representing the county's 162 firefighters, agreed with one of the report's conclusions -- that public safety employees, including firefighters, are underpaid.

He said that since county firefighters work 52-hour weeks, their hourly wage is 36 percent below those of surrounding counties.

But Henry objected to the suggestion that county workers generally work too little and get paid too much.

"Maybe the county executive -- certainly some of the County Council -- look at county employees as debt service, and I don't like to hear that," Henry said. "There's a tremendous amount of dedicated county employees."

Reached by phone last night, Ecker said he was happy with the report. He plans to pay $145,000 to the same company so it can develop more detailed suggestions sometime this fall.

Ecker already plans to implement one of the changes recommended -- a system in which employees are evaluated annually by themselves, their supervisors, their subordinates and their peers.

Most other changes would require the approval of at least the Republican-controlled County Council. Some would need changes to the county charter that only a voter referendum can approve.

Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, said he has only just begun reviewing the report but overhauling the personnel system is a top priority for him.

"We have the union mentality, and that is, 'I do my job from nine to five, and after that I go home,' " Drown said. " 'If it takes an extra 10 or 15 minutes, I don't do it.' "

Drown and Ecker have been outspoken advocates of a pay-for-performance system that would give supervisors more power to tie the wages of county workers to annual evaluations.

The county charter guarantees every employee the right to appeal almost any decision by a supervisor. Republicans say that makes a pay-for-performance system difficult to implement since workers would appeal anything but evaluations leading to the highest possible raises.

Pub Date: 6/26/96

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