How Much Is An Elected Leader Worth?

Baltimore County: Panel's Recommendations Too Generous, But An Increase Is In Order.

April 28, 1997

BALTIMORE COUNTY Council members must soon vote on a salary increase for the next group of elected leaders, which may or may not include them. It may also include County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger. There is nothing wrong with the council taking on this matter; only the council has authority to set these salaries. The question they confront: What is fair recompense for elected officials?

In 1990, pay raises for county officials caused an uproar. People were dissatisfied with the council and then-executive Dennis Rasmussen. There may be fewer grumbles this time. That's important politically but irrelevant otherwise. The issue is the job itself, not whether current officeholders are earning their keep.

It's tricky: If we want conscientious people to choose public service we have to pay them decently. But salaries can't be so cushy that people run for office just for money. The right balance should reflect the amount of responsibility; whether the job is full-time or part-time; what leaders in comparable jurisdictions are paid and inflation.

The Baltimore County executive is paid $90,000; an advisory board recommends $109,500. It says council salaries should grow from $30,900 to $42,500. These increases are too generous, even though the council hasn't had a raise in seven years. The board considered salaries in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, which are not the best comparisons. Top officials in Towson belong in the same ballpark as Baltimore City's mayor and council, who make $95,000 and $37,000, respectively.

By law the executive's job is a full-time post. Mr. Ruppersberger oversees a $1.4 billion operation; even the proposed pay raise is a pittance next to what private corporate leaders overseeing similarly sized business earn.

The issue of council members' pay is stickier because they work part-time, yet $37,000 looks less like a stipend than a full-time salary. The reality is that most council members put in full-time hours; their task is one of the most demanding in public life. Those who do it right usually end up earning far less at their "real" jobs. As with any other product or service, we can't expect to get something for nothing.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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