Low pay affects elections boards

Recruiting difficult for state jobs where counties set salaries

February 15, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Free elections are vital to democracy, but they cost millions to stage. In Maryland, though, the state gets a discount, keeping salaries low for elections board workers -- the mechanics who operate the state's election machinery.

With a presidential primary looming, chronically low state-controlled salaries for elections board workers in 19 counties and Baltimore are making it difficult to recruit qualified people, officials say.

Unable to attract the required minimum of three candidates to be elections board administrator, Howard County's board is asking County Executive James N. Robey to supplement the state starting salary of $30,246 -- lower than a rookie police officer's -- so it can attract more applicants to tend to 130,000 voters.

Administrators' pay in 15 smaller Maryland counties starts as low as $23,300, even after a pay increase Jan. 1.

Although boards are state jobs, local governments fund the salaries -- the result of an incomplete state takeover of locally run boards in 1974.

In Montgomery County, one of four counties in which board workers are county employees, the administrator makes $91,593. In Prince George's, another of the four, the administrator makes $85,000.

In Baltimore County, board administrator Doris Suter, with 38 years of experience, makes $52,000.

Baltimore County has more voters than Prince George's and nearly as many as Montgomery County.

Administrators' pay scales in Baltimore range from $36,700 to $54,900.

"It's really terrible that these people are so grossly underpaid," said Prince George's administrator Robert J. Antonetti Sr., a 30-year veteran whose salary is above the top range of the pay scale because of his experience.

Though elections occur only one or two days a year, board workers are busy year-round registering voters and cleansing the rolls, recording address or party changes, maintaining and buying equipment, recruiting and training hundreds of hard-to-find election day judges, preparing printed ballots -- including thousands of absentee ballots -- and locating and coordinating polling places.

"We have to recruit 2,400 election judges," said Suter, who with a staff of 18 watches the county's 185 polling places and keeps track of 425,000 registered voters.

Linda Lamone, state elections administrator, said the $18,000-a-year starting pay for board workers is also too low.

"We're not just asking them to be typists or sort things alphabetically anymore," Lamone said. "There's a lot of new, more complicated voter equipment. All the technology projects I've started are bringing them into the 21st century."

She met recently with Del. Joan Cadden, an Anne Arundel County Democrat whose subcommittee examines elections board budgets.

"I do believe there is a problem," Cadden said. "You can't hire a professional person and not pay them a professional salary."

Administrators' pay scales in Anne Arundel County range from $30,246 to $45,102, the same as in Howard.

In Harford and Carroll counties, the pay range for administrators is $26,500 to $39,500.

Cadden and Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Democrat, introduced companion bills last week that would give the state elections board the power to set workers' salaries, removing that authority from state personnel officials.

Lamone said she has been trying to upgrade salaries and specifications for several years without success.

"It's important," she said. "I've just felt badly about it all along. I got appointed in March 1998. Here we are in February 2000, and we haven't made any progress."

Suter said the low pay has created difficulties in finding new employees.

"We're definitely having a problem," she said. "You can't really find them."

In Howard, one of the state's wealthiest counties with the lowest unemployment rate in Maryland, deputy administrator Evelyn M. Purcell said she makes $22,000 a year, plus $50 a week extra as acting administrator since 18-year administrator Barbara Feaga retired July 1.

And until Howard hires a permanent administrator, Purcell's deputy job must remain unfilled, in case she returns to that position.

"We were terribly underpaid, considering the type of work we did," Feaga said.

Howard's board would like to have a $40,000 starting salary for an administrator, board Chairman Frank Lupashunski told Robey recently during a discussion at the board's Ellicott City offices. Then maybe the job could attract more than two applicants, he said.

"We're obligated to follow the law," Lupashunski said.

The board will try again to fill the job after the March 7 primary, he added.

Robey told him to ask for more county money in the board's budget request, and that he would consider it.

Lupashunski said he is more frustrated to see Montgomery County advertising for a new deputy administrator at a pay range of $45,900 to $76,000 a year.

The pay range for administrator in Howard County went up Jan. 1 to a range of $30,246 to $45,102.

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