'Overpaid and underworked' Merit pay debate: Report takes aim at public employees in Howard County.

June 27, 1996

CHARLES I. ECKER received new ammunition in his quest to squeeze more efficiency out of county government in Howard: A $55,000 report which concludes that many county workers are overpaid and underworked. The county executive and fellow Republicans on the County Council have sought to revamp the personnel system with a merit-pay apparatus. They now have 95 typewritten pages of support for the idea.

The study, by San Diego-based Organizational Consulting Center, built its recommendations largely on comments from 120 county managers. It suggests that a pay-for-performance compensation system would shift raises from an "entitlement philosophy" to a "distributive justice philosophy." There would be fewer automatic raises; superior work would be rewarded with bonuses.

Many governments are moving in this direction: A new state law mandates an eventual pay-for-performance plan for state workers; Anne Arundel recently instituted a merit pay system for non-union workers, and Baltimore County is experimenting with a "gainsharing" system that rewards employees for gains or savings they devise.

Most disturbing is the report's finding that more than a third of Howard employees spend 35 hours a week on the job, considerably below the standard 37.5 or 40 hours a week. Mr. Ecker and his council allies should try to rectify that situation.

The report also concluded employees are overpaid by 18 percent. We wonder if that considers the high cost of living in Howard, compared to elsewhere in the region. The report also fails to mention that employees have made sacrifices in recent years, giving up raises and enduring furloughs, buyouts and layoffs.

Mr. Ecker accepted the conclusions of the report without reservation. Ironically, a couple of months ago when another report he'd commissioned said fire station staffing was inadequate, he dismissed the findings. Union officials obviously feel Mr. Ecker has simply got what he wanted: a report consistent with his views.

Regardless, this document is a firecracker that will annoy employees, stir up taxpayers and force anxious council members to choose sides. Mr. Ecker and the council must do more research, then put reasonable changes in place.

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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