Council pushes for pay raise

$33,800 salary called too low by two members


Republican County Councilman Christopher J. Merdon and Democratic Councilman Ken Ulman don't often agree, but both think the next County Council should get a hefty pay raise.

Merdon, who represents Ellicott City and Elkridge and is running for county executive next year, told the council-appointed Compensation Review Commission last week that he "wouldn't be opposed to going to the high $40,000s or low $50,000s" from $33,800 a year.

Ulman, who represents west Columbia and might run for re-election or for county executive, said he agrees with "the ballpark of what Chris referred to," but said the raise could be to the mid-$40,000s.

Western county Republican Charles C. Feaga disagreed - saying a 5 percent pay raise, which would mean $1,690 more a year, would be right - but he agreed with his colleagues that a council seat should be a part-time position.

Howard council members' pay is the second-lowest in the Baltimore-Washington area, where salaries range from $31,000 in Harford County to $76,654 in Montgomery County.

Howard council members, who make $2,700 more than they did in 1998, also get $100 a night for sitting as the zoning board and $50 for liquor board duty. The council chairman makes an additional $1,000 a year.

Four years ago, the council raised the executive's pay to $131,966 but left council pay unchanged.

The Compensation Review Commission's recommendations will become a council bill, probably in January, and the new pay rate would take effect after the November 2006 elections.

The commission interviewed the two other council members several weeks ago but has not questioned County Executive James N. Robey.

One thing all members agree on is that the job, while technically part time, is demanding, from late-night meetings to constituent services. Yet all say they find it rewarding.

Feaga, a semi-retired farmer, said that he often has meetings at his West Friendship home and that he recently drove 65 miles in one day on county business in his rural district.

Getting by on "four to five hours' sleep at night" is the key, he said. "Politicians learn to go on very little sleep," Feaga told the commission.

Ulman said that to continue attracting qualified people, the council must pay enough to enable candidates to meet their families' financial needs.

At one point, Ulman said he loves the job so much that pay doesn't matter to him because he makes good money as a lawyer.

"I would have done this job for no salary," he said.

That brought a smile and a jab from Merdon. "Jackie says, `No you wouldn't,'" he joked, referring to Ulman's wife.

Merdon said he opposed a pay increase four years ago because there was a recession and county employee raises were in danger.

Council special assistants, full-time workers assigned to each council member, earn $57,700 to $65,100, more than the elected members make, but they have no responsibility for decisions, Merdon said.

"My special assistant makes more than I do," he said. For all the hours council members put in, "we probably don't even make minimum wage," Merdon said.

Ulman agreed that demands on members' time is often heavy. Zoning hearings on sensitive cases often last six hours a night.

Commission members appeared ready to recommend a large pay raise.

A member of the compensation panel, Ed Waddell, produced a chart showing that council pay would be up to about $39,000 if it had increased based on the Consumer Price Index or if it had matched county employees' pay raises since 1998.

"I think it's fair to say we all feel the increase should not be a token amount," said commission Chairwoman Lynn Benton, noting Howard's high cost of living and the soaring cost of homes.

Thomas Price III, a lawyer, said that "a young man of 30 with a family can't afford" to serve on the council.

Member Steven Sass noted that starting teachers and police officers make more than council members do.

Member Carlene Cazeau said, "What we're saying ... is that you have to have another source of income."

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