Allowance increase not new issue Carroll board recalls discussing raise in '94

December 05, 1998|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

Two days before Thanksgiving, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners faced a day packed with dreary, bureaucratic matters -- save for one.

Sitting shoulder to shoulder in their conference room -- a cheerless, closet-sized space with 10 chairs pressed tightly around a polished table -- the commissioners slogged through a day of meetings and briefings.

At 10 a.m., they discussed the 2000 census. At 11 a.m., they signed off on $125 million in industrial revenue bonds for a cement factory expansion and listened to an update on a business prospect.

But by a little after 3 p.m., the board had veered from its schedule, taking a vote that would turn the final days of its four-year term into some of the most tumultuous.

Meeting in private, the board increased members' daily allowance -- an amount in addition to salary and expenses -- from $12 to $90. "It was done intentionally out of the public's view," Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown said. "I have no doubt about it."

The 650 percent jump, which would have made board members the highest-paid part-time elected officials in the state, drew criticism from the public, state politicians and government watchdogs.

Nine days later, the board returned to the conference room and )) reversed its vote.

"It came up entirely out of the blue," recalled Brown, who cast the only vote against the proposal on Nov. 24.

But in a larger sense, it was not new at all. Interviews with all three commissioners reveal that the increase was being discussed even before they took office.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell first discussed the increase in 1994, during an organizational meeting before the current board was sworn in. Dell, finishing up his first term, was feeling overworked and underpaid with his $32,500 salary for the part-time office.

Yates and Brown rejected the idea.

"We just got elected. We aren't going to do that," Brown said.

Five months later, Dell approached them again.

"He said that we had raised taxes and it was time to do it," Brown said. "We again said no."

In 1996, Dell raised the issue for a third time. Again, Brown and Yates wouldn't support the proposal.

"Politically, it wasn't the thing to do in the middle of the term," Dell said in an interview yesterday.

No one mentioned the daily allowance again until Nov. 24, when Steven D. Powell, director of the Department of Management and Budget, proposed a $78 increase.

"I saw Donald at work," Brown said. "Donald is someone who never gives up. Here we are at this issue again, I thought. Some things are never settled not until the little guy is in the ground."

L Powell said the proposal was his idea, not prompted by Dell.

Dell supported it, arguing that increasing the allowance before the new board took office would be best.

"Politically, I thought I could spare them," he said.

Brown said he understood the frustration of long hours with low pay but said voting for a raise behind closed doors was inappropriate.

"You run for office knowing what the job pays. If you're not happy, you look for another job," he said.

That left Yates to cast the deciding vote. The board debated less than 15 minutes before Yates voted with Dell.

L "This time I wouldn't be the beneficiary of it," Yates said.

The board's private vote became public one week later. Complaints flooded the commissioners' office.

"I got maybe a dozen calls. Most of the people were irate. They said, 'There was no question you deserve more money, I just don't like the way you did it,' " Dell said.

On Thursday morning, the board returned to the conference table and rescinded the $78 increase. It also voted for the Department of Management and Budget to conduct a study to determine an appropriate daily allowance, based on expenses.

The study is expected to be completed within a week.

When the results are released, Dell said, he knows what kind of meeting it will be.

"I will be more sensitive to the public when something like this comes up," he said. "It will be an open meeting."

For Brown, who will leave office Monday, the last week has been a lesson in the flaws of the county's commissioner form of government.

"It's like trying to drive a bus with three steering wheels. It's a very inefficient way of doing things," he said.

Without a manager, the board spends much of its time deciding government minutiae: choosing the color paint, the type of brick, whether a bridge should be wood or concrete.

Yesterday, the board added to its duties, taking over hiring decisions for the county attorney's office and the Department of Planning.

"Dell wants to micromanage," Brown said. "In order to do that you need to put a lot of time in. It's a paradox. You say, 'I want to put in all this time in,' and then you complain that you are putting in too much time and not getting paid enough."

Dell said the time the board spends on relatively minor issues is part of the job. "I have a strong feeling that I was elected to be administrator. To turn all my power over to someone who is appointed is not the way I want to do it," he said.

Brown said the management style leaves little time for policy issues. This year the board eliminated the historic planner position held by Kenneth Short without doing any research on his work or consulting the public, Brown said.

The board also erred when it rejected the United Way, refusing to allow employees to deduct money from their paychecks to support their favorite charities, Brown said. It is the only county government in the state that turned away the organization.

"We embarrassed ourselves when we said no," Brown said.

Brown suggested that the General Assembly pass legislation that would increase commissioners' salaries automatically, based on inflation and the cost of living.

"Who wants to ask for a raise and run for re-election? It's a built-in inhibition," he said.

On that point, Dell agreed.

"We shouldn't have to do that," he said. "I don't feel comfortable going and asking for it."

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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