Carroll commissioners boost bonus by 650% Combined with salary, part-timers could earn more than $65,000

December 02, 1998|By John Murphy, Mary Gail Hare and Brenda J. Buote | John Murphy, Mary Gail Hare and Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County commissioners' new compensation package -- passed during a private meeting last week -- is the most lucrative in the state for part-time elected officials and includes a $90-a-day bonus just for showing up for work.

Carroll is the only county in Maryland that offers its part-time elected officials a daily payment in addition to salary, mileage and expense reimbursement, according to a statewide survey by The Sun.

Carroll's package would surpass the compensation paid in much larger jurisdictions such as Baltimore County and would rival the pay of full-time council members in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

On Nov. 24, Carroll's three part-time commissioners voted 2-1 to raise their daily bonus by 650 percent -- from $12 a day to $90 a day. Combined with their $32,500 salary, the commissioners could earn more than $65,000 a year.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell, re-elected this fall to a third term, defended the increase yesterday: "I'm sure there's a small group of people out there saying we're raping the county. That happens. I had expected it."

But Del. Joseph M. Getty, a member of Carroll County's state delegation, has asked Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. to investigate, claiming that the $78-a-day increase violates state law.

"What they did may be illegal, and they are bypassing process to establish their salaries," he said.

Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a government watchdog organization, said she was hard pressed to decide which part of the Carroll action was more alarming.

"It is in total violation of the open meetings act," she said. "There appears to be a conflict of interest, raising ethical questions. Not even Congress can do this. Not only are they operating in a financially self-serving way, but it is being done in secret. This is like some kind of time warp."

Dell said the board voted on the matter in a closed, unpublicized meeting because it was "a personnel matter." Outgoing Commissioner Richard T. Yates voted with Dell.

Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown, also leaving office next week, voted against it, objecting to the secrecy and the amount of the increase.

"The commissioners work two or three days a week, at night and on Saturdays and Sundays," Dell said yesterday. "Many times, we don't get compensated for that."

With five days left in the board's four-year term, the three commissioners have billed the county for 2,758 working days, for a total daily bonus of $33,096. Under the new rate of $90 a day, the same number of days would cost the county an additional $215,124.

The General Assembly must approve increases in salary -- but not expenses -- for commissioner-run counties such as Carroll. State legislators said they have never received a request from the current board for a raise.

"The commissioners don't usually request that sort of thing," Dell said. "The delegation ought to have enough respect for the commissioners to treat them fairly."

Other counties, including Charles, Calvert and Caroline, requested raises from the General Assembly last year. The raises take effect when the new boards' terms begin.

Caroline County commissioners' annual salaries, for instance, will increase $3,000, to $12,000. Commissioners in Charles County received a $5,300 raise, to $35,000 a year.

As a whole, salaries and benefits for part-time elected officials vary widely in Maryland. Kent County's three part-time commissioners receive $11,000 per year and no compensation other than mileage.

In Worcester County, part-time county commissioners receive $16,000 a year and $150 each month to cover all expenses.

Baltimore City Council members are paid $37,000 and get expenses of $5,000 to $7,000 a year, depending on when they took office.

In addition to a $38,500 salary, Baltimore County Council members receive access to county vehicles and an all-expense paid trip to the annual Maryland Association of Counties Conference.

Only Carroll County offers a daily bonus, in addition to reimbursement for mileage, meals and travel. The county also pays for the commissioners' spouses to attend official events and conferences.

The daily allowance was last raised in 1982, when it was more than tripled to $12, Dell said.

"Since then, we've seen salaries increase 75 percent to 100 percent," he said.

Getty, a Manchester Republican and attorney, called the commissioners' daily allowance "quirky." He said the bonus is really a salary "enhancement" because it's not reimbursement for expenses.

The General Assembly must approve any increase in salaries, which it did last year for the county sheriff, the Board of Education and the judges of the Orphans' Court.

"If we had received a request from the commissioners, I am sure it would have passed," said Getty. "But it would not have been a $25,000 increase in salary."

In 1984, the Carroll delegation sponsored a bill that gave the county authority to set all expenses.

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