Pr. George's chief proposes $12 million in raises despite budget woes

By Miranda S. Spivack
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 12:44 AM

After a bruising budget season with cuts in school aid and the use of one-time park and planning funds to plug an $85 million budget gap, Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson is proposing pay raises for county employees that could cost $12 million annually.

The plan, submitted by Johnson (D) to the County Council about a week before the Sept. 14 county primaries, would increase pay by 2 percent for about 1,600 nonunion employees beginning in January. Johnson has also set aside $4.8 million to fund 2 percent raises for about 4,400 union workers, although contract negotiations are ongoing.

The increases, which the council will begin discussing on Oct. 6 - when Johnson and five council members are lame ducks - could put pressure on Johnson's likely successor, former delegate Rushern L. Baker III (D), to fund them next year when county revenues probably will remain flat.

Meanwhile, school system employees took a furlough day Friday and will have several other unpaid days off during the school year. Other county employees whose salaries Johnson is proposing to boost took 20 furlough days in the past two years, and did not get a pay increase last year. The furloughs saved the county about $20 million annually.

A council committee chaired by Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant), who, like Johnson is leaving office in December because of term limits, will examine the bill before sending it to the full council. Exum declined to be interviewed about the pay increases, saying through a spokeswoman that the council had been aware that Johnson would be proposing them.

But they were hardly the focus of attention last spring, when budget deliberations among Johnson, the council and school officials were publicly focused on how the county would fund the schools and pay for basic services. County officials had asked the state to allow them to avoid meeting minimum state funding standards, a move that was later scuttled. Still, the school system budget was cut.

Johnson spokesman John Erzen said funds for the county employee pay raises were set aside in a contingency fund last spring by the administration as part of the $2.6 billion budget. He said they were included in the overall budget package approved by the council after spring budget deliberations, but now need more formal council approval.

Johnson thought the budget this year had enough play that he could push for raises, Erzen said, even though the total budget is about the same as last year, when employees took furloughs. Johnson was out of town and unavailable for comment, Erzen said.

Government pay and spending in Prince George's has been a source of tension for several years as county revenues have been hammered by the downturn and by the county's foreclosure rate, which is Maryland's highest. During the recent campaign to replace Johnson, only Baker vowed to avoid furloughing school system and public safety employees, and said he would look for new ways to fund county services. He did not make any commitments to raise pay for the county's approximately 6,000 employees or 18,000 school system employees.

Baker declined, through a spokesman, to comment.

Jonathan R. Seeman, the county's budget director, said the proposed raises are affordable, even though county revenue has not grown in the past two years. He said he is projecting some increases from real estate transfer and recordations taxes and from property taxes.

"Certainly our revenue is not growing as it did back three or four years ago," he said. "But it's not going down, either."

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