Allowance seems OK, state says

Delegate had sought attorney general's advice on per diem

Compensation a hot issue

Commissioners' work day premium likely to stay $12

May 26, 1999|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

On its face, the daily bonus county commissioners receive does not violate Maryland's Constitution, the state attorney general's office said in a recent letter to the senior member of Carroll's legislative delegation.

Del. Donald B. Elliott requested the advice of the state's attorney general 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.

When he requested the advice, Elliott expressed concern over whether commissioners were entitled to receive both the per diem and reimbursement for expenses such as meals and mileage.

"I understand that the $12 per diem is intended to cover incidental expenses that are not otherwise currently reimbursed by the county," chief counsel Robert N. McDonald wrote in a letter dated May 21. The document was released yesterday.

"On its face, it does not appear impossible for a $12 per diem to approximate actual incidental expenses," McDonald added. "However, to reach a conclusive answer to that question would require a detailed factual study of the actual expenses incurred by the Commissioners."

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said yesterday that the board may consider conducting such a study. But for now, the per diem will remain as it is, she said.

"We looked over the letter and consulted our attorney, who said she didn't see a problem with the per diem, so I guess that's how it will be," said Gouge, who initially supported the monthly allowance proposed by county budget director Steven Powell. She changed her mind after the proposal was criticized.

"I've never questioned the fact that we could have a per diem," added Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who pushed for an increase in the board's compensation.

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who has repeatedly said she would not favor increasing the board's compensation, said yesterday that she is glad the issue has been resolved.

"It appears the per diem is not illegal, and that was my only concern," she said. "I'd like to put this behind us."

Elliott, a Republican, said he intends to share McDonald's letter with the county's state delegation.

"It's my understanding from this letter that the commissioners can get whatever per diem they want, as long as there is a reasonable justification for it," Elliott said. "As a delegation, we may be spelling out what that might be. In the interim, they can determine what is in line with their actual expenses."

The three-member Board of Commissioners is expected to adopt the county budget for fiscal year 2000, which begins July 1, at 11 a.m. today. The budget includes a $12 per diem for the commissioners.

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.

The commissioners rescinded the increase less than two weeks later under pressure from the public and state legislators.

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

Pub Date: 5/26/99

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