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Prince George's Council Members Vote to Raise Their Pay | News

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Prince George's Council Members Vote to Raise Their Pay

The Gazette reports that the Prince George's County Council voted today to increase its $96,417 annual salary — the highest amount earned by council members in Maryland — despite sharp criticism from at least one presumptive councilman and two current members who said they should scale back the pay hikes.

"This is a really bad idea," said Mel Franklin, the presumptive District 9 county councilman, who is unopposed in the general election.

County Resolution 105, which was introduced and approved immediately by the council today after members agreed to suspend normal legislative procedure, sets new salary terms to start in December 2011 for the nine council members.

Under the proposal, the county executive and council keep their current salaries frozen for one year after new members are sworn in this December. After that, their salaries will increase every December based on the region's consumer price index, an economic measure of changes in the costs of goods and services.

Traditionally, the index rises by 2.5 percent annually, although it declined last year for the first time in a decade by 0.8 percent. Economists expect the CPI to increase again soon at the traditional rate, which would have council members making more than $100,000 per year by 2015.

Under the version the Prince George's County Council approved, salaries will not decline even if the consumer price index falls.

Term-limited County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) currently makes $174,540 per year, the most of any county executive in Maryland. The same salary freeze and increases will apply for presumptive County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.

Although the raises were first proposed by a task force in April, members put off the resolution until after this year's primary election. A council member, who asked not to be identified, said the delay was to avoid political fallout in the election.

Council Chairman Thomas Dernoga (D-Dist. 1) of Laurel said the proposal was designed to compensate leaders for their work.

"This is a really hard job. If you do it right, it's a 70- to 80-hour-a-week job," said Dernoga, who introduced the bill with Councilman Eric Olson (D-Dist. 3) of College Park.

Dernoga is prevented by term limits from returning to the council; Olson is running unopposed in the general election. Olson declined to comment on the timing of the pay proposal.

The proposal to increase pay comes just one week after members of the council delayed a vote giving county employees a 2 percent pay increase beginning Jan. 2. Members requested further budget information before making their decision in light of learning about an expected $50 million deficit next fiscal year.

Under state and county law, elected officials are only able to set pay raises to begin after the next election.

The move by the council is a departure from actions by the U.S. Congress and the Maryland General Assembly, who each voted not to grant pay raises in their next terms.

The county's move is more aggressive than Montgomery County, where lawmakers voted last year to delay pay increases for a two-year period, rather than for one year as in Prince George's.

The Prince George's County Council pay raise proposal drew outrage from observers as it passed Tuesday.

"I don't think there's any reason for increasing salaries," said Franklin, who said he would try to rescind the proposal when he is on the council. "We are going to be in a very tough budget for a very long time, and I don't think we'll know when it will be over."

Members voted 4-3 to reject a change by Dernoga and Olson to extend the salary freeze for another year, until 2012, in light of the current economy.

"We're trying to be as fair as possible," Olson said. "This is what Montgomery County did. Our employees have gone without pay raises for several years. It's only fair that we do, too."

Councilwoman Camille Exum (D-Dist. 7) of Capitol Heights said the task force's recommendations should take effect instead.

"It was not the prevailing sentiment of the commission," said Exum, who voted to keep the original pay raise.

Councilman Tony Knotts (D-Dist. 8) of Temple Hills, who also supported the pay increases, said future members can always give back their salary hikes if they don't like them.

"If you don't want this salary, give it back," said Knotts, who suggested that future lawmakers give their pay to local charities.

Both Exum and Knotts are term-limited.

"The question is, can we lower [a raise]?" Franklin said, wondering about the next council's ability to alter salaries. "I would like to see no increase at all."

According to the annual salary survey published this month by the Maryland Association of Counties, Prince George's elected leaders are already at the top of the pay pyramid. Johnson makes $7,540 more than Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett, who is paid $167,000 per year.

Prince George's council members are the highest paid in the state, paid $2,377 more than their counterparts in Montgomery County, who make $94,040 a year.

Baltimore City Council members are the third-highest paid, making about $58,425 per year.

Some County Council members in other jurisdictions receive as little as $14,400 per year, as in Talbot County.

"I think this is disgraceful," said Margaret Moodie, a Bowie Republican running for the District 23A seat in the House of Delegates. "Most people I talk to think [the council] should only be making $18,000 a year. Nobody knows how much they make."

Moodie said it was "ludicrous" for elected leaders to accept more pay as schools and crime remain chronic problems in the county.