Pay increase OK'd for next executive

Council rejects raise for members to be elected in Nov.

Budget shortfall noted

Amusement tax on farm-related recreation ended

February 05, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Council approved last night a $26,500 pay raise for the next county executive but rejected a $1,200 increase for members of the next council.

The council also agreed to eliminate the amusement tax on farm-related recreation. County Executive James N. Robey had requested a reduction in the tax from 7.5 percent to 5 percent.

Both issues were decided on 3-2 votes, with one Democrat voting each time with the council's two Republicans, Allan H. Kittleman from the western county and Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City.

The two Republican members sponsored the critical amendments to each bill, one that eliminated the proposed council pay raise and another that eliminated the farm tax instead of reducing it.

They argued that with the county facing a projected $18 million budget shortfall this year because of the recession, the next council, as a symbolic gesture, should not get a pay increase even though the move would save little money.

"Did I hear you say you're not going to vote for any pay raises [for county employees] this year?" council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat, asked Kittleman.

"No," the Republican replied.

Despite the elimination of the council raise, Merdon supported a much larger increase for the next executive. The job is poorly paid, he said.

"You can't have a CEO making less than his employees," Merdon said.

The bill proposed raising the pay of the County Council members who will be elected in November by $1,200, to $35,000 (a 3.5 percent increase), with subsequent raises tied to the Consumer Price Index. It also proposed an increase for the county executive - from $98,500 now to $125,000 for the next executive - again subject to cost-of living increases through 2006.

Gray said he would support the recommendations of the citizens commission appointed to examine the issue.

Partisan issue

The proposed pay raises for elected officials drew little interest from the public in the fall as the commission considered what pay to recommend, but the stand taken by the two Republicans caused a fight along partisan lines.

Gray has accused Kittleman and Merdon of using the issue for political gain, which they deny.

Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat and the only Democrat seeking another council term this year - Gray is preparing a run for the state Senate, and Lorsung is retiring - was the crucial vote on the pay increase bill. He said voting for no pay raise was the only way to make sure the council would "stand in solidarity" with county employees if this year's budget woes prevent them from getting a cost-of-living pay raise next year.

Guzzone said there was no support for a compromise he had in mind that would give up the $1,200 next year but give council members raises in subsequent years based on the Consumer Price Index, as the commission recommended.

Gray casts deciding vote

Gray was the deciding vote on the farm tax, voting with the Republicans, he said, because he has in mind the elimination of other amusement taxes.

Merdon and Kittleman argued that the farm amusement tax brings the county only $22,000 a year in revenue and that Robey's bill would eliminate a third of that. Giving up the other $14,000 wouldn't make much difference, Kittleman said.

"It will send a message to our farmers that local government will not stand in their way as they adjust to farming in the 21st century," said Kittleman. By itself, he said, eliminating the paperwork required to pay the tax will be a boon to Howard's fast-disappearing farm community.

Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, opposed eliminating the farm amusement tax, warning that although it might be "appealing," it "is a guarantee there will be a line forming [for other businesses that pay it] to do away with the tax for them."

"There are a lot of other entities to which this tax is attached," Gray said. "They will be coming in" to get the same break the farmers are getting, she said.

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