Fairfax County is considering a new executive pay plan, designed to make its bureaucracy more responsive, that could give its four top executives annual salaries of more than $86,000 within the next two years, according to a government memo.
The plan, similar to the federal government's Senior Executive Service, would remove about 30 Fairfax officials from civil service protection and offer them the promise of the highest pay of any local government in the Washington area. Fairfax's appointed county executive and its nine elected supervisors would have more freedom to fire, transfer or demote department heads under the plan.
In return, the executives would be eligible for significantly higher raises than current procedures allow. County Executive J. Hamliton Lambert, who now earns $70,000 a year, could earn as much as $89,383 two years from now under the executive plan, compared to a maximum of $77,175 under the current merit system, according to a memorandum Lambert sent supervisors this week.
Those figures do not include other benefits like insurance and retirement payments or deferred compensation that could add up to an additional 15 percent of the executives' salaries. Lambert also earns $4,500 in additional benefits, according to Fairfax personnel director Cornelius J. O'Kane.
Proponents of the plan say it would make Fairfax a pioneer among Washington area governments, allowing it to attract top-flight managers who might otherwise take highpaying jobs in private industry. Opponents charge that it could politicize the bureaucracy and cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III said the plan would bring Fairfax "out of the Stone Age" and allow it to hire and retain the caliber of managers it needs to manage its $500 million dollar plus budget. "These are not people looking for jobs; these people have jobs looking for them," Davis said.
The plan has considerable support from supervisors who have complained that top bureaucrats sometimes ignore their directives. Other supervisors worry about the political implications of paying county bureaucrats more than federal employes, many of whom are Fairfax voters.
Lambert said the board will make a decision after discussing the plan with the county civil service commission and after county executives learn more about it during a planned retreat. Six of the supervisors were interested enough in the idea last March to authorize a study of the concept by the firm of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co.
Top level presidential appointees, including Cabinet secretaries, currently earn a maximum of $69,630. Congressmen earn $60,663, but recently voted themselves tax deductions that can significantly increase their takehome pay.
The current pay ceiling for federal Senior Executive Service employes is $58,500 -- the same pay that Elijah Rogers, the chief administrative officer for the District of Columbia earns. His counterpart in Montgomery County, Robert W. Wilson, earns $64,000 a year, plus $5,000 in retirement benefits.
Fairfax Supervisor Martha V. Pennino, who favors the plan, said she is troubled that the present salaries are skewed, with some deputy county executives making nearly as much as, or more, than Lambert.
The consultant's study, which county officials said cost somewhat less than $100,000, recommended implementation of an executive service, and Lambert said he, too, favors the plan. "The advantages are managerial," Lambert said in an interview. "You can remunerate people who deserve it rather than just everyone."
Fairfax is unusual among local governments in having department heads who are protected by civil service and do not serve at the pleasure of the county manager.
Peat Marwick estimated the plan, which would not cover school employes, would cost about $250,000 in its first year of operation. Supervisor Audrey Moore and Board Chairman John F. Herrity said they feared the plan would cost more.
"Once you increase the top people, you end up pulling up the whole salary structure, and it ends up costing big bucks," Moore said.
"I think the bureaucracy is pretty responsive already, especially the top people, and I don't think we have to pay them any more to do it," Herrity said.
Under the proposed plan, top officials could choose whether to enter the service. They would then sign contracts that would be negotiated each year based on performance and approved by the board of supervisors. An outstanding job would earn a cost-of-living raise plus 8 percent; a satisfactory job would earn cost-of-living plus 5 percent; a totally ineffective job might leave a bureaucrat with no raise at all, which could not happen under the current system.
The county is granting cost-of-living raises of 5 percent this year, compared to 9.1 percent last year. Lambert could reach $89,383 in two years if the cost-of-living raises stay at 5 percent and he earns an "outstanding" rating both years from the board.
Other top officials could also reach salaries higher than $86,000. They would include James P. McDonald, deputy county executive for management and budget, Richard A. King, deputy county executive for public safety, and public works director Glen G. Ehrich. At least eight other officials could top $70,000.