Pay raise recommended for Montgomery County Council

September 17, 2013

A citizens panel has recommended a 17 percent pay raise for members of the next Montgomery County Council, raising the annual salary to $125,000 for members taking office after the 2014 elections.

The proposal comes from a citizens panel appointed by the council to study compensation for elected officials. The seven-member committee (six Democrats and one Republican) favors raising council salaries from the $106,394 members will make by year’s end, when a previously approved 2.2 percent cost-of-living adjustment kicks in.

For the remaining three years of the new council’s term (2015-18), the committee recommends annual increases tied to growth in the region’s consumer price index. That would bring council compensation to a projected $136,258 by 2017.

The committee also recommended raising the next county executive’s salary about 3 percent, from $184,360 to $190,000. The panel proposed no increase in the state’s attorney’s pay, currently $199,000, except for a cost-of-living increase linked to annual CPI growth in 2014. Same for the county sheriff, who will be making $157,234 by the end of this year.

Compensation for elected officials is reviewed every four years by an independent committee selected by the council from a pool of civic volunteers. The council usually follows the recommendations, although members did decline several increases during the recession.

The proposed raise would pull council members nearly even with their counterparts on the D.C. Council, most of whom collect $128,340. It would place them well ahead of council members in Prince George’s ($102,486) and Fairfax ($75,000) counties.

But in an economy where U.S. workers will bring home an average of 3 percent more pay this year than last, according to expert forecasts, a 17 percent boost may appear unseemly to many voters. This year, the council approved raises averaging 7 to 10 percent for unionized fire, police and non-uniform employees.

Committee members said Tuesday that the power and reach of social media have created unprecedented demands on the time and attention of council members. Constituents and stakeholders enjoy nearly real-time access to lawmakers and expect rapid responses.

“At first glance, it really looks like a large jump,” said Cristina Echavarren, a retired budget analyst with the Inter-American Development Bank who chaired the committee. But where a constituent letter could once be answered by a council member in a few days’ time, social media “puts them in a place where they must respond quickly.”

Montgomery County residents adopted a charter amendment in 2006 making council service a full-time job for purposes of setting pay. But committee members said the 2009 round of salary increases based on their recommendations did not lift the council to an appropriate level. Pay for the offices of the county’s state’s attorney and sheriff grew nearly 25 percent.

“I think the previous compensation reviews did not fully account for the scope, intensity and complexity of the work,” said John Britton, a lawyer and former member of the Rockville City Council.

Not all committee members were as enthusiastic about the council pay proposal. John Gaughan, a Bethesda lawyer who was the panel’s lone Republican, referred a request for comment to Echavarren “in the spirit of comity.” He called the internal debate “strenuous.”

The committee will present its report to the council next Tuesday, with final action expected before the end of the year.

Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County) said she supported the panel’s recommendation, citing increased demands and the importance of attracting candidates who might not otherwise be able to afford to serve.

“My concern for a while has been who runs for office and who can afford it,” Navarro said.

Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) said that he has not taken a position on the report but that it was “hard to overstate the demands of the job.” Between hearings, community meetings and constituent work, he said he averages 65 hours a week on the job.

“The level of detail and specialized knowledge [required] is substantial,” he said.

Council member Phil Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg), a candidate for county executive, called the proposed raise “too much too soon.”

Andrews said that the committee’s analysis was well grounded but that the increases needed to come down.

“The recommendation needs to be adjusted by the council,” he said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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