County officials get big raises

Department heads sometimes earn more than their executives

Competitive job market

September 05, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

America's chief executive officers aren't the only ones who have received big raises thanks to the booming economy -- some top county officials in the Baltimore area have seen their salaries jump, too.

For many officials, salaries have increased at more than twice the 4 percent average annual increase to lower-level executives in private industry.

Howard County Public Works Director James M. Irvin earns $117,416, a $23,000 increase over the past four years. Robert Barrett, a special assistant to Baltimore County's executive, earns $110,000, almost double the $58,000 he earned when hired in 1994.

With such pay raises, an increasing number of area government administrators -- at least 20 -- earn more than the county executives they serve.

County officials say the raises are needed to keep pace with corporate salaries and to prevent administrators from jumping to the private sector. The salaries are based on experience, expertise, performance and workload, they say.

Irvin has more than 20 years' experience in Howard County government. Barrett works "round the clock" as a liaison to the county Fire Department and County Council, oversees constituent complaints and handles county real estate transactions.

"He's worth more than what we're paying him," Baltimore

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger says of Barrett.

Critics say the hefty raises send the wrong message.

Taxpayer advocates say such raises will make it more difficult for counties to trim budgets if the economy sours and tax revenues dry up. Union leaders object to the disparity between raises for top administrators and for rank-and-file employees.

"The message to the little guy in the trenches is that his work isn't as important," said James L. Clark, president of the 550-member Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees.

Many of the union's correctional officers, police dispatchers, crew chiefs and secretaries were given pay upgrades last spring that will mean increases of about $4,500. But cost-of-living increases were only 2 percent, Clark said.

County officials in the Baltimore area say that the top administrators' pay scales are much lower than for comparable jobs in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and that the raises are small compared with those awarded to the nation's top corporate executives.

A survey by a Washington-based group found that pay for chief executives of large companies rose 36 percent in 1998. The survey by the Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy found that the average annual compensation for those executives was $10.6 million last year, a nearly 500 percent increase from the $1.8 million average in 1990.

That compares with a 4 percent average increase paid to lower-level executives in the private sector nationwide, according to several national surveys.

The annual William M. Mercer Compensation Planning Survey, released last month, showed that 2,000 midsize and large employers gave 13.9 million workers average raises of 4 percent a year in each of the past six years. The consumer price index increased 1.6 percent last year.

As top county administrators receive big raises, their paychecks are surpassing those of the county executives who appoint them.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey's $91,000 salary is $26,416 less than Irvin's and almost $21,000 less than that of his top aide, Chief Administrative Officer Raquel Sanudo.

Ruppersberger's $105,000 salary is $29,000 less than that of the Baltimore County health officer, Dr. Michelle Leverett, and $24,312 less than that of his top aide, executive officer Michael H. Davis. Ruppersberger earns $5,000 less than five other department heads.

Experts say there are two reasons for such disparities: the complexity of running a county agency and the intense public scrutiny that discourages hefty raises for county executives.

The salaries of top administrators are included in the departmental budget packages approved by county councils each spring, while executives' salaries are usually approved individually by the councils and are subject to closer scrutiny.

"Raising salaries for elected officials is always a sensitive issue with voters," said Larry E. Naake, executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Counties.

Top administrators often stay in their jobs longer than county executives, wrestling with government's mundane details, such as paving streets and collecting trash. The county executive's job -- a sought-after, elective position that changes hands every four or eight years -- is setting policy and making key decisions on spending and personnel.

"You're given a good deal of power when you take on these executives' positions, and in some sense that's part of the compensation," said Jeanne Bilanin, deputy director of the University of Maryland's Institute for Government Service at College Park.

The pay increases are most pronounced in bigger counties.

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