Phased-in 17.5% raise approved for Montgomery County Council

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday approved a proposed 17.5 percent pay hike for members taking office after the 2014 elections, but to deflect constituent criticism eight months before the primary elections, the council decided to phase in the raise over four years.

A seven-member citizens panel appointed by the council recommended the raise last month. The panel said the complexity of the job, compounded by the power and reach of social media, has created unprecedented demands on the time and energy of council members. The compensation committee favored increasing council pay from $106,394 annually — which the members will make by year’s end because of a previously approved 2.2 percent cost-of-living adjustment — to $125,000, effective December 2014.

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In addition, the committee proposed annual adjustments over the next three years tied to the region’s consumer price index, to bring council compensation to a projected $136,258 by 2017, a total increase of 28 percent. Reviews every four years by such committees have increased council pay from $62,500 in 1998.

The recommendation made by this year’s panel — headed by former Inter-American Development Bank analyst Cristina Echavarren — put the council in a box. Nearly all members seemed to think that they deserved the money, but they were concerned about public reaction, which in some cases had been scathing. Some members expressed concern about a backlash from the county’s public employee unions, which received raises averaging 7 to 10 percent in contracts approved by the council this spring.

The council approved an amendment by President Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County), chopping the pay package into annual increments of 6 to 6.5 percent.

“I believe we also need to be mindful that many of our residents are facing difficult economic times,” Navarro said.

That change lowers council members’ pay as of December 2014 pay from the proposed $125,000 to $113,310. With the projected inflation adjustments,members are on track to make $120,675 effective December 2015 and $128,519 in December 2016.

Council Vice President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) said he has received a steady stream of e-mails for and against the raise. The reaction of some residents was that members “don’t deserve anything to begin with.” Other residents, he said, appreciate the council’s hard work. In the end, he said, the measure strikes the right balance and makes running for office affordable to a broader range of citizens.

The council approved the plan by an 8 to 1 vote, with Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) as the sole dissenter. Andrews, who opposed the size of this year’s raises for county workers, called the council raise “larger than a pay increase should be,” and he said it will make it more difficult to avoid awarding big increases to unionized employees.

But the pay package drew support from some surprising quarters. The president of the Montgomery Taxpayers League, which generally takes a dim view of increased county spending, gave her blessing to the raises at a hearing before the vote.

“This pay raise is not about performance, it’s because of the responsibilities of your position and the expectations that you will meet them,” said Joan Fidler, who said about 600 county government employees and more than 2,000 county school system employees make higher salaries.

“Our county and school employees are not on call 24-7, you are,” Fidler said.

Research by the committee suggested that Montgomery council members were roughly in the middle of the pack nationally when their compensation was compared with that of governing boards in counties of similar size. The raises will pull members nearly even with their counterparts on the D.C. Council, most of whom are paid $128,340. It will place them ahead of council members in Prince George’s County ($102,486) and Fairfax County ($75,000).

The council also adopted the committee’s recommendation to raise the county executive’s salary about 3 percent, from $184,360 to $190,000, after the next election. The panel proposed no increase in the state’s attorney’s pay, now $199,000, except for a cost-of-living increase next year linked to the consumer price index. The same is true of the county sheriff, who will be making $157,234 by the end of this year.

 
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