Elliott questions per diem

Delegate wants ruling from attorney general on commissioner pay

Expenses questioned

Officials rescinded recent pay increases after public pressure

April 25, 1999|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

The senior member of Carroll's legislative delegation has asked the state attorney general to issue a second opinion on the county commissioners' compensation, revisiting a controversy many considered settled.

Republican Del. Donald B. Elliott requested an advisory opinion about a week ago, shortly after the commissioners proposed replacing their $12 per diem -- a bonus they receive each day they show up to work or appear at an official function -- with a monthly allowance.

The $675 allowance would have covered car and home office expenses, and would have been in addition to each commissioner's $32,500 part-time salary. The proposal, which would have cost taxpayers $24,300 a year, was made at a budget hearing April 1, but was quickly quashed in the face of public criticism.

For many, that decision signaled the end of the controversy. But in Elliott's mind, the board's action raised further questions.

"I've asked Attorney General [J. Joseph Curran Jr.] to look into the current $12 per diem they're getting," said Elliott. "I'd like him to define what they can and cannot do."

Elliott said he was not sure whether the commissioners were entitled to receive both the per diem and reimbursement for other expenses. In addition to the daily bonus, the commissioners are compensated for meals and mileage.

"I'm not saying the commissioners don't work hard or don't have demands put upon them," Elliott said. "I just want them to do whatever they have to do, to do it right. I'd like them to make their decision based on what is proper legal advice."

Budget deadline looms

Elliott said he hopes to hear from the attorney general's office before the three-member board of commissioners adopts the county budget for fiscal year 2000, which begins July 1.

A public hearing on the board's proposed budget is scheduled for May 6. The document must be adopted by May 26.

The issue of compensation has been a topic of debate since November, when the former board increased its daily allowance from $12 to $90. The extra $78 per day would have made the Carroll commissioners the highest-paid part-time elected officials in Maryland.

Two commissioners, Richard T. Yates and Donald I. Dell, voted for the increase. W. Benjamin Brown voted against it.

Defending the vote, Yates and Dell said the commissioners were entitled to better compensation for the hours they worked. Under pressure from the public and state legislators, the commissioners rescinded the increase less than two weeks later and asked the county budget director to study the issue and determine what would be fair compensation.

In an opinion by the state attorney general's office released late last year, chief counsel Robert N. McDonald said the vote "was probably unlawful and the commissioners did the right thing when they rescinded the increase."

McDonald found that the per diem constituted a salary because it was not tied to expenses. As a salary, it could be increased only by the state legislature, the opinion said.

McDonald's opinion did not directly address the issue raised by Elliott, members of the delegation said.

"It seems to me the opinion said you either get reimbursed for actual expenses based on submitted receipts or you come up with a lump-sum amount," said Republican Del. Joseph M. Getty, a severe critic of the per diem increase proposed by the previous board of commissioners.

The daily bonus is not tied to expenses and is considered a lump-sum allowance.

"The lump sum per se is not wrong, but it should be tied in some reasonable way to actual expenses," McDonald said Friday.

Changes ahead

Commissioners Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier said they would calculate their compensation in accordance with the law. Board President Julia Walsh Gouge could not be reached for comment.

"We may have a tough time justifying the $12 per diem because there is nothing in the records to show why it's there. It's not tied to expenses. I don't know what to tie that to," said Dell, who views the money as compensation for incidental costs such as working from home.

"That's why I felt much better about having the monthly allowance," he added. "It's something that would be clearly tied to expenses."

Frazier, who refused to support any change in the commissioners' compensation, said she wants "to do whatever is legal." She has repeatedly suggested that the commissioners ask the legislature for a pay increase, a proposal Gouge has embraced.

The idea does not sit well with Dell.

"I have never asked for a salary increase and would feel uncomfortable doing so. I feel the delegation has an obligation to pay us a reasonable salary," he said. "In my mind, they have failed to do this. We haven't gotten a raise since 1994."

Pub Date: 4/25/99

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