Harford pay wars [Editorial]

Our view: An underpaid county executive doesn't make for a better county executive

September 24, 2014

For most of Maryland, David R. Craig might be remembered best as the candidate for governor who finished second to Larry Hogan in the Republican primary earlier this year. But there's another title the outgoing Harford County Executive ought to have wrapped up — the elected official least interested in a pay raise.

On Tuesday, Mr. Craig vetoed legislation that would have raised the county executive salary from the current $105,000 (a $90,000 base plus cost-of-living adjustments) to $130,000. The raise would never have applied to him personally, as Mr. Craig leaves office this year under term limits, but he apparently doesn't believe his successor deserves the money either.

Such a display of penurious populism probably won't upset the taxpayers of Harford County, but one wonders how it plays with his own family. Mr. Craig has previously refused salary increases and a pension, and four years ago he convinced the county council to cap executive cost-of-living adjustments to no more than what's offered rank-and-file county employees, a move that reduced his salary by about $6,000 annually.

At the current pay scale, Mr. Craig is the 60th most highly paid county employee and by far the least well-paid county executive in the Big Seven subdivisions of Central Maryland. Had he merely stayed in the county school system where he was last employed as an assistant principal, he'd be making at least $120,000 a year and probably more.

Mr. Craig ticks off these points with the obvious pride of a man who was paid a mere $4,800 annually to be mayor of Havre de Grace, a part-time job but not an undemanding one. As county executive, he had to make some tough decisions since the economic recession hit the county hard in 2009 — as it did most communities — and he believes any other course of action would have been unfair to county employees.

But here's the problem with such a philosophy. It's not necessarily in the long-term interests of the county to pay its top elected leader less than many of the 1,200 or so workers under his management. If we accept that this is a difficult job with long hours, a position for which relatively few people are qualified, and one that requires a costly political campaign to even get elected, why offer a salary that would be regarded as laughable in the private sector where a CEO of an equivalent-size company would earn far more?

Will a higher salary necessarily result in better county executive candidates? Alas, not necessarily. But a bargain-basement salary would seem to ensure at least one thing — that certain individuals won't run. That's not to disparage a $105,000 salary, which is nearly twice the county median household income, but most people would surely agree the job is more critical to the county's future than that of a high school assistant principal.

Tomorrow, the Harford County Council will have an opportunity to override Mr. Craig's veto, and we believe it should. Given that the council approved the pay raise by a 5-to-1 margin, that only requires those five members to be consistent in their views. This is not a matter that should stir strong sentiment among voters, pro or con.

Yet we can't help but lament the less-than-rational approach so often taken regarding the salaries of elected officials. The County Council might have made this process slightly easier if they had invited a third party — an independent commission of some kind — to research the matter and recommend salaries. As it happens, legislation to raise council salaries was withdrawn in the face of opposition from the local teachers union and for lack of sufficient support on the council, even though the argument for raising them was fairly compelling.

Of course, Mr. Craig's argument for tying the salaries of elected leaders to rank-and-file employees is compelling, too. But that assumes the salary Mr. Craig was paid was appropriate in the first place and only requires annual adjustments to keep up with inflation. As Harford County has gotten more populous and its government bigger and more complex, the demands placed on the executive and legislative body have grown as well, and so, too, should compensation. That's how it works in the private sector, and we see no reason why government, local, state or federal, should not also attempt to attract the best and brightest for its top positions.

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