Facing outrage from recession-weary Baltimore residents and criticism from talk-radio hosts and union leaders, Mayor Sheila Dixon reversed course yesterday and announced that she will donate her $3,700 raise to a "city government charity."
"I woke up this morning and said, 'You know what? It is not worth it,' " Dixon said. She said she hopes the decision will help "get things moving forward and stay focused on the bigger plan."
The mayor plans to announce the recipients of the money today.
Other elected Baltimore officials, high-ranking city managers and union members should consider returning pay increases as well, Dixon said, noting that others in her office have received "more than I have gotten."
Dixon's announcement came two days after The Baltimore Sun reported that a powerful city spending panel quietly approved 2.5 percent cost-of-living increases for the mayor and other officials last month at a time of sharp budget cutbacks.
Asked earlier this week whether she would donate to charity the raise that had increased her salary to $151,700, Dixon said "no," citing long work hours and a daughter in college.
Comptroller Joan M. Pratt said yesterday that she would donate her $2,450 increase to the Steuart Hill Academic Academy; the Franciscan Center, a social services outreach facility; and to a third charity to be determined.
City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake's office distributed a vaguely worded statement yesterday saying that she planned to increase her charitable giving.
"For many years I have contributed a portion of my personal income to city charities, and in these tough economic times I plan to do even more," said Rawlings-Blake.
She said any decision about what council members do with increases that are raising their salaries from $57,000 to $58,425 is "personal."
Six City Council members said this week that they plan to donate their pay raises.
After news of the raises was disclosed, city residents expressed outrage on radio shows and Internet message boards. Elected officials, many said, should share the economic pain felt by constituents and city employees. City Hall supervisors are facing salary freezes to help close a $36.5 million budget shortfall, and police and fire overtime has been slashed.
The timing of the pay raise is bad, observers said. Dixon said her agency heads will disclose plans on Monday to cut $65 million from next year's budget. The plan could include furloughs or layoffs, Dixon said.
It remains to be seen whether Dixon and other Baltimore officials will suffer long-term damage from the salary issue. But other cities illustrate alternatives for managing salaries during times of fiscal distress.
When Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter slashed his city budget last month, he announced that he would take a 10 percent pay cut that would lower his compensation from $186,000 a year to $167,000.
"The mayor believes that leadership begins at the top and [that] you need to set an example and you need shared sacrifice to get though this," said Luke Butler, a spokesman for Nutter.
Dixon, Pratt and Rawlings-Blake, who each sit on the five-person Board of Estimates, voted on authorizing the pay increases the day before Thanksgiving. Each woman abstained on the vote for her own raise.
There was no discussion of the item, which was presented on the 98-page agenda as a "Salary Adjustment" for pay grades 88E, 87E, 83E and 81E. No job titles were listed next to those pay grades, though titles were included for similar agenda items.
Pratt, whose office prepared the paperwork, said yesterday that her staff took information from the city human resources department without making substantive changes.
She acknowledged yesterday that including job titles with the pay grades would have been more transparent. Dixon agreed.
"The agenda item - they should have sent it a different way and I'm going to address that," Dixon said.
She said yesterday that she did not know that she would be voting on the pay increases until that morning. Gladys B. Gaskins, the head of the human resources department, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Salary increases frequently cause headaches for politicians, which is why some jurisdictions seek to move pay increase into the hands of independent commissions. In Baltimore, the Compensation Commission for Elected Officials was approved by voters in 2006 and made salary recommendations last year that included large raises and 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustments after that.
But the Board of Estimates still must authorize any annual change in funding levels.
Political consultants expressed surprise that a veteran elected official would make such a fumble during difficult economic times, but said Dixon could contain the damage by donating or returning the money and apologizing.
"I know salary increases are always a problem," said Sheila Tate of Powell Tate Strategic Communications, a bipartisan Washington public relations firm. "But to do it when the market has just crashed and the economy is in shambles, it shows a lack of connection that is sort of breath-taking."
Tate, who was President George H.W. Bush's campaign press secretary, said the mayor could shore up her image by striking a contrite note when returning the money.
"You have to say, 'I'm responsible for making this decision. It was a poor one. I apologize.' That will end the story," Tate said. "That will do everything you can to undo the damage."
The right tone is important, Tate said. "If it is more like, 'I'm caught and I'm giving it away,' that leaves a bad taste in the mouth."