Pay increase projected in top ranks Salary and bonus at highest levels could total $131,814

'A tough sell'

Lower echelons skeptical about pay system overhaul

March 17, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

A sweeping overhaul of Howard County's personnel system could mean raises -- or at least bigger paychecks down the road -- for the county's top administrators, including those crafting the plan.

A chart of estimated salaries recently released to the County Council shows the top base salary as $123,323, with a possible performance bonus of $8,491. That totals $131,814 -- nearly 25 percent more than the current top salary.

The salaries, still just estimates, would be higher than those paid to Howard officials' counterparts in the Baltimore area, but on a par with salaries in Maryland counties near Washington.

The highest-paid employee in Anne Arundel County earns $101,361, in Baltimore County $98,500 and in Carroll $72,443. But in Montgomery County, the highest-paid employee earns $126,274, and in Prince George's County, $119,999.

Howard County officials caution that the salaries in the chart -- a matrix of 19 grades and 11 steps -- will not be final until consultants finish a study of salaries of the region's public- and private-sector employees in the next few weeks.

But Cecil Bray, a top administrator overseeing the personnel overhaul, said the high end of the county's pay scale is likely to increase -- though perhaps not in time to benefit the current administrators appointed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

Ecker's second -- and, by law, final -- term ends next year. His successor will have the power to appoint new department heads and other top administrators.

"There's a chance that they'll be hired with much greater salary potential than people here now," Bray said. "Somebody coming in at my level would have the potential to make a lot more than I've ever made."

The vast majority of employees don't know where they will fall on the new scale. But the structure administrators favor is likely to fatten the paychecks -- immediately, or perhaps over time -- of higher-ranking employees.

Council has final word

All parts of the personnel overhaul will need the blessing of the County Council, and raises for top-level employees would be a politically sensitive issue.

Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, said that salaries as high as the estimates would have trouble passing. "I think that would bother me," Drown said. "It would be a tough sell."

The personnel overhaul -- Howard's first since 1981 -- is being developed with the Organizational Consulting Center at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Diego. The county has paid the center $125,000 for the work.

After more than a year of study, details are only beginning to emerge on the plan to revamp how the county's 1,800 employees are classified, evaluated and paid.

Ecker says he wants a system that is simpler and gives administrators the power to reward top performers with bonuses. He also wants salaries to be based on the regional labor market of both public- and private-sector employees.

"The objective is to get a scale based on the market," he said.

But workers are uneasy.

"I'm really leery about their intentions," said Mike Rund, vice president of the firefighters union and a member of Bray's committee reviewing the proposed personnel changes. "They're certainly not doing this to benefit us."

Dale Chase, president of the county's union of blue-collar employees, said he would not be surprised if top administrators ended up with raises. "I haven't seen a classification system overhaul that didn't end up that way."

Overpaid workers?

This summer, a preliminary study by the same consultant said many employees work too few hours and may be overpaid by 18 percent compared with peers in other counties. It also recommended eliminating longevity bonuses, spreading out step raises and freezing the salaries of employees who make more than the market rate.

In contrast, Bray said that salaries among the county's top administrators have stagnated, resulting in "compression" of the salary scale. Grades are so close together that experienced subordinates sometimes make more than less-experienced superiors.

To remedy that problem, officials considered several possible salary scales, settling on one in which each of the 19 grades are 10.79 percent apart. Each of the 11 steps -- which would take 20 years to climb -- are 3.05 percent apart, Bray said.

"The lower end has been creeping up, and the top end hasn't been allowed to move up," he said. "Right now, we have supervisors who, in some cases, are paid less than the people under them."

Top 10 salaries

Howard County's top administrators may get raises under the county's new personnel plan. Here's what the best-paid county employees earn now:

Barbara Cook, county solicitor $98,164

Jim Irvin, public works director $98,164

Raquel Sanudo, chief administrative officer $93,455

James N. Robey, police chief $88,922

Charles I. Ecker, county executive $86,375

Cecil Bray, deputy chief administrator $82,579

James Heller, director of fire and rescue services $82,579

Paul Johnson, deputy county solicitor $82,579

Richard Biggs, director of communications and technology $80,548

Joseph Rutter, planning director $80,548

(School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey earns $121,740, and his four top deputies make $97,216, but they are paid by the school board. School employees would not be affected by the salary overhaul.)

SOURCE: Howard County government

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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