Carroll County officials say they have proof that salaries and benefits have improved for government employees over the past few years: Three high-ranking staff members recently returned after leaving for higher-paying jobs with Howard County.
Before 2002, the salary situation was dire, said Carole V. Hammen, Carroll's human resources director.
But since salary steps and a pension plan were implemented in fiscal 2004, qualified employees have returned, and vacancies have disappeared.
The publication of the county's first annual personnel report last week sharpened the focus on those improvements. While employees make more on average in Howard, Frederick and Baltimore counties, Hammen said, Carroll is poised to be competitive.
"We did not have any kind of salary plan before," Hammen said. "During every budget year, the commissioners would go through all the obligations. If anything was left over, county employees might get something, and they might not."
As of February, the average county employee earned $37,700 -- $1,000 more for those in the sheriff's and state's attorney's offices. In contrast, the average Howard County employee earns almost $15,000 more, said Art Griffin, Howard's chief of classification and pay.
Griffin said Carroll offers more reasonable salaries now.
"That doesn't necessarily mean we're in the same place, but relative to the cost of living, salaries are now competitive enough," Griffin said.
Baltimore and Frederick counties have almost twice as many government employees per 1,000 residents as Carroll, according to the personnel report. Howard has about three more employees per capita than Carroll. With almost 900 full-time employees in fiscal 2005, Carroll has 5.4 employees per 1,000 residents.
"We're never going to be exactly like Howard or Frederick," Hammen said. "But we're going to be on the same playing field."
The pension and salary-step plan lured Joseph Varrone back to become Carroll's auditing administrator in September. Previously, the Manchester resident commuted for four years to Howard as a budget officer, a position that he had held for the previous four years in Carroll.
Although Howard employees make higher salaries, Varrone said he is satisfied with his career path in Carroll.
"The commissioners are open-minded to creative solutions to the county's problems," Varrone said. "That to me is more important than the money."
Jeff Topper, the county's budget bureau chief, and J. Michael Evans, director of public works, expressed similar sentiments.
Commuting to Howard County from his home in Hanover, Pa., was tiring for Topper, even though higher pay lured him there as a financial management chief in 2000. A budget and then financial analyst in Carroll starting in 1989, Topper returned as budget chief in 2004.
Evans went to Howard as an inspections director, after resigning from the Carroll commissioners' Cabinet in 2000. He returned to the county as director of public works last year.
"At the time I left, there was no predictable step," Evans said. "When the new Board of Commissioners came in 2002, they brought us pretty much squarely into the 21st century. ...We used to joke that Carroll was a training camp for Howard County employees."
The Department of Public Works still has problems recruiting truck drivers and equipment operators, Evans said, but most of the competition comes from the private sector.
The average state employee also makes more than the average Carroll County employee under an 18-step salary schedule and has put in more years of service. While Carroll employees serve the county for an average of 11 years, state employees have worked 13 years at the state level and earn $42,700, Hammen said.
Those employees rarely give up their state pensions to come to work for the county, she said. The only exception is retired state police employees, who work for the sheriff's office while receiving pensions.