Owens faults council for OK'ing raise

Panel sets 26 percent increase for itself, starting in December

Boost of about $7,000

Officials vote 7-1, say rigors of job merit higher payment

February 06, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens criticized County Council members yesterday for voting to raise council salaries to $36,000 a year - a 26 percent increase - beginning in December, after elections.

Owens said that council members, most of whom are running for re-election, should not have justified the pay increase by comparing their salaries to those of county employees - some of which have also risen significantly recently.

"I personally don't view elected officials as county employees," said Owens, a Democrat whose position could also be recommended for a salary boost in the coming months.

Owens, whose job is considered a full-time position, unlike the council's part-time status, receives $102,000 a year, about 21 percent more than her predecessor, John G. Gary, a Republican, who earned $84,000 in 1998.

"It would be comparable to me complaining that some of my department heads earn more than I do," said Owens, who makes less than several cabinet members, including Chief Administrative Officer John M. Brusnighan, at $116,070 a year, and Director of Public Works Ron Bowen, at $111,072.

The council's vote Monday night, along with a pending pay raise for state legislators, has angered taxpayer groups, which cautioned that lawmakers will need to make difficult budget decisions in the months ahead. Security issues related to the attacks Sept. 11 have made tough economic times even tougher.

"We're sympathetic, but this is just the wrong time for legislators to be voting themselves a pay increase," said Maryland Taxpayers' Association President Kenneth R. Timmerman.

"We will take this to the voters," he said yesterday. "We will let voters know which elected officials are gouging taxpayers."

All but one of seven council members voted to adopt a new salary schedule, one that increases pay for the chairman, vice chairman and other members by about $7,000 annually. The new package also pays members $350 a month if they use their own cars rather than one from the county's fleet.

Council member Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, cast the dissenting vote.

"I think there are generous rewards that go along with the position," said Owens, referring to life and health insurance plans as well as cellular phones, pagers and laptop computers provided to all council members.

Council members have complained recently about the amount of time and energy they spend doing a part-time job. Meetings with constituents and county staff members, political mixers and campaigning take a toll on personal lives as well as personal finances, they said.

Council Chairman Bill D. Burlison, an Odenton Democrat, said that the pay increase might encourage more residents to run for public office, adding that some people back out when they realize they won't be able to support their families on the salary provided.

"This legislation will at least be in the right direction in that score," he said.

But Vitale compared her colleagues to business executives who look out for themselves rather than for employees. She noted that the county's fiscal outlook has turned bleak recently because of a drop in income tax revenue and state aid.

County budget officials already have asked department heads to scale back funding requests in anticipation of a $20 million shortfall in the 2003 fiscal year.

"I'm just really concerned that if we don't take the hard line for ourselves, then we're somewhat hypocritical when we're asking department heads to take the hard line," Vitale said.

Measuring Anne Arundel's council salaries against those of neighboring jurisdictions is difficult because many are in the process of adjusting compensation packages in anticipation of the November general election, when a new slate of officials could be elected.

According to data collected last year by the Institute for Governmental Service and Center for Applied Policy Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, Anne Arundel's salaries were below those in Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties, where county council members receive $63,709, $54,332, and $38,500 respectively.

Anne Arundel's new council salaries were recommended by a committee in November. A similar study is under way for the county executive's position.

Owens, who is running for re-election, said she won't fight for a pay raise. But she won't necessarily turn down one either.

"I want to see what is out there," she said, referring to the salaries of other county executives. "I want to see what they recommend."

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