When newcomers talk about why they come to Howard County, the discussion often turns to the quality of the schools. So it's not surprising that, in a community where real estate prices and top test scores go hand in hand, the schools chief is the highest paid public official. Several other school system officials are top earners as well, with salaries close to $150,000, more than the elected county executive and most government department heads.
Still, only 142 of 6,813 school employees make more than $100,000. Among them are 57 high, middle and elementary school principals and the director of county athletics ($119,530). The median school system salary, however, is $45,426. That's similar to Howard government employees, whose median annual pay is $47,661.
Sandra J. Erickson, chief of school administration, left, and Raymond H. Brown, chief operating officer for the schools, have the second-highest salaries of all public employees at $150,000.
(Grant L. Gursky)
Only 48 of the county's 1,929 government workers top the six-figure mark, according to data provided by the county for 2004. Slightly more than a third of those are police and firefighters whose base salaries are significantly bolstered by overtime.
The county's salaries were analyzed by The Washington Post as part of its survey of more than 70,000 salary records from 14 jurisdictions.
In Howard, which has experienced several years of rapidly increasing housing prices, the average weekly wages for local public employees lag behind those in private industry by $87, according to recent data from the county's Economic Development Authority.
Raquel Sanudo, Howard County's chief administrator, said government employees often perform many complex tasks and could earn far more in the private sector. The county's finance director, she said, functions like a bank president, accountant and fiscal analyst combined, overseeing a $968 million annual budget.
"When you compare a government employee to a non-government employee in the same position, clearly we are much lower," she said. "The public would not accept a government employee making $400,000 a year."
"You can only be competitive to the extent that you look at other political subdivisions, or other agencies, such as the Board of Education," Sanudo said.
About a third of all Howard County workers stay in Howard, another third commute to Baltimore and the other third to Washington. The county is geographically closer to Baltimore, however, and its public employees are paid similarly to those in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Baltimore County, said Art Griffin, who manages compensation for Howard County in the human resources office.
Within Maryland, he said, Howard ranks near the middle in pay rates for public employees. "Montgomery would be in front. But they would say that we aren't competing against Fairfax and Arlington like they are," Griffin said. "Those Virginia jurisdictions compensate many of their workers at levels higher than in Howard County."
Still, the cost of living in Howard -- particularly housing -- has been increasing so rapidly in recent years that lawmakers and others are concerned. In the fall, for example, there were few homes for sale in Howard County priced less than $200,000. The county has begun to examine the feasibility of creating an inventory of "affordable" housing for government employees, such as teachers, firefighters and police officers.
But government employment does have its benefits, many say. Many governments have led the way in workplace flexibility, including part-time work for professional employees, as well as in health benefits and vacations.
"Government often has greater fringe benefits and time off. That is an offsetting factor, though not a total offset," said Richard W. Story, head of the county's quasi-governmental Economic Development Authority. "I would not find it unusual that government pays less than the private sector."
A desire to perform a public service, and in some instances, an opportunity to work for other tangible and intangible benefits that are better than those in the private sector help keep people in government work.