Pay freeze could thaw early in Prince George's

By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Prince George's County Council on Tuesday opened the door to potential salary increases for incoming council members and the county executive, already the most highly paid county government officials in Maryland.

The council rejected a bill that would have frozen the pay of council members and the county executive for two years and instead left intact a one-year freeze that will be lifted in December 2011 and potentially boost pay for council members, who now get $96,417 for the part-time positions, and for the executive, who gets $174,540. The action followed a recommendation by a commission that included close associates of departing County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D).

Because of term limits, the council will have at least five new members after the Nov. 2 election. The county also will elect a new executive, most likely Democratic nominee Rushern L. Baker III, who is running unopposed.

Tuesday's 4-3 vote comes as the council prepares to take up a separate bill on Wednesday that would raise nonunionized employees' pay by 2 percent starting in January. That bill was proposed by Johnson, and if approved, would cost the county about $12 million annually at a time when a top county budget official told the council that revenue is flat. State aid to the county is uncertain because of the lingering effects of the recession and a potential state budget gap of as much as $1.5 billion.

"I think it would have been a good thing to delay any increase for a couple of years. We have asked county employees to go without increases, and I think it makes sense for the council and the executive not to have raises begin at least while we have this economic downturn," said council member Eric Olson (D-College Park), the chief sponsor of the bill advocating a two-year freeze.

Olson's bill also would have cut council and executive pay if the consumer price index fell, as it did last year. Instead, the one-year freeze, which stays in effect because Olson's bill was rejected, does not include any provision for a pay cut, while allowing pay raises if the consumer index rises.

The measure to freeze pay for two years, which needed six votes to pass, was supported by William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) and council Chairman Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel); opposing the bill were Marilynn M. Bland (D-Clinton), Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville), Camille Exum (D-Seat Pleasant) and Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills). Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) and Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) were not in the chambers during the vote. Council spokeswoman Karen Campbell said Harrison had a personal matter to attend to, and Turner did not respond to a query about why she missed the vote.

After the vote, council members peppered Johnson's budget chief, Jonathan R. Seeman, with questions about the county's fiscal condition. Some said they were uncomfortable about approving a pay raise for county employees without more specifics about revenues and expenses.

Seeman signaled that the county could face a troubling prospect, depending on how the state government plugs its budget gap. Prince George's gets about $70 million from the state for education, an amount Seeman said the county "could not make up" if the state cut aid to localities. The public schools budget is about half the county budget.

"The fiscal year 12 budget is not showing a lot of growth," Seeman told the council as he made a pitch for the 2 percent pay raises for the county's 1,600 nonunion employees starting in January. Johnson's administration has set aside $4.8 million to fund 2 percent raises for about 4,400 unionized workers, although contract negotiations are ongoing.

"I don't foresee that we are going to have significant additional revenues," he said. Still, he said the raises for the nonunion workers are affordable, which prompted extensive questioning from council members who said other bills were going unpaid and jobs in county government are being left vacant.

Dernoga said he had heard from nonprofits including Meals on Wheels and domestic violence-prevention groups that Johnson's administration had not released promised funds and that Johnson had sent about $2 million to the troubled Prince George's Hospital Center without council approval.

Campos said he was deeply troubled by those reports.

"Why hasn't the money been released? What is the point of putting money in the budget to help nonprofit organizations that surely need the help and not giving that money out?" he asked Seeman, who responded that the issue was being discussed between the council and Johnson.

"I believe in the context of those discussions it will get resolved," Seeman said.

Dernoga and other council members have repeatedly asked Seeman to provide data on how many unfilled jobs there are in the $2.6 billion county government. As he has responded before, Seeman said Tuesday that his staff was working on the data.

In the coming fiscal year, Johnson has said the county would need about $50 million to cover rising expenses, such as health care and fuel costs. Seeman estimated that the county may have the same amount in unspent funds that would be available to cover the gap. But he said he would not have specific numbers on revenues and expenses until next month.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company