Pay raise stirs debate

Council Democrats call GOP objection to increase a ploy

Public hearing tonight

Republicans say they oppose expense in concern for deficit

January 22, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Tonight's public hearing in Ellicott City offers every Howard County resident the chance to speak on the latest County Council controversy - whether members elected in November should make $33,800 or $35,000 when they take office.

The fight underscores how even a relatively small issue can crack the political fault lines with an election looming - and the council's minority Republicans hoping to become a majority.

It's not as though Howard's council members are paid more than others. Baltimore's 18 council members make $48,000 a year, and Baltimore County's members voted for a new salary of $45,000 next term. State legislators are due for a 38 percent raise to $43,500 by 2006, unless they vote to stop it.

In Howard, the controversy broke out last week when the five-member body's minority Republicans announced they wouldn't support the increase in a move to recognize the $18 million county budget shortfall.

"It is a symbolic measure. The County Council has to show leadership - that we're prepared to cut ourselves," Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon said of the stand he and western county Republican Allan H. Kittleman have taken.

Merdon said Republicans support the proposed $125,000 salary for the next county executive, however, because they believe the pay of $98,500 is far too low to continue attracting good candidates. They haven't discussed whether county employees should get a pay raise in such tough times, Merdon said.

Democrats see things differently, with council Chairman C. Vernon Gray accusing the GOP of a transparent political ploy.

"If, in fact, they're really concerned about the deficit, they would say no one in the entire county should get a raise. It's clearly a political move," Gray said.

Republicans deny that, but their proposal could have interesting political results.

Two of the three council Democrats aren't running for re-election. Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, is retiring, while Gray, a five-term member, is planning a run for state Senate.

That means Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat who is often the council's swing vote on contentious issues, is likely vulnerable to political damage.

If a Republican could win that seat, Merdon and Kittleman, if re-elected, could control the council as part of the majority.

But that isn't the issue, they say.

`Do more with less'

"[County Executive James N.] Robey and others will be urging county employees to do more with less. The point is that the County Council should not be voting for a pay raise," Kittleman said.

Lorsung criticized the Republican move as "a rather short-term approach," noting that a citizens commission recommended the raises.

"People don't run for County Council for the bucks," she said, adding that pay is important, however, to enable more people to run - "especially for women who still have families at home and baby-sitting costs."

If Merdon and Kittleman want a symbolic measure, Lorsung said, they could donate their raises to the county or to charity.

Equity suggested

Guzzone said he would be interested to hear testimony at the public hearing, but believes "we should receive no more than what our county employees are receiving." The council's raise would amount to 3.5 percent, but it won't be clear what county workers would receive until Robey presents his budget in mid-April.

Merdon said he might be willing to compromise - eliminating the $1,200 increase in 2003, but allowing subsequent pay raises based on the Consumer Price Index.

Gray said he would not support the GOP amendment, agreeing with Lorsung that the Republicans could donate part of their county pay to charity - as he has since 1990. "They can follow my example," Gray said.

Robey has no vote on the pay increase bill, which is scheduled for a council vote Feb. 4.

Still, he said, "I wish they hadn't done that because these raises are for four years, not just for one. Don't close the door on the next four years."

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