Washington-Baltimore area feds are in for some mostly good news on the pay front.

The best part: They are likely to get more than the 4.8 percent "average" adjustment many expect.

The moderate downer: Thanks to locality adjustments, feds here probably will get smaller percentage increases--and continue to make less--than colleagues doing the same jobs, in the same agencies, in a dozen other U.S. cities.

President Clinton is expected to issue good news soon for white-collar federal workers in high-cost cities. Insiders predict that he will carve up the "average" 4.8 percent pay raise approved by Congress to give maximum benefit to big-city feds.

Military personnel will get the same 4.8 percent adjustment in January, but unlike the civilian adjustments, the military increase will be across-the-board.

Under the 1990 federal pay law (which has never been fully applied), white-collar feds are due two raises--in one package--each January. Part of the raise is based on nationwide private-sector wage data collected by the government. The second part of the raise is supposed to be a fine-tuned locality adjustment to reflect private-sector salaries on a city-by-city basis.

When the bipartisan pay act was enacted (by a Democratic Congress and a Republican president), the idea was to close the "gap" between private and federal pay. According to government data, that gap ranged from 20 percent to 30 percent in many mid- and upper-level jobs. The data included only salary and didn't measure the added cost of fringe benefits (number of holidays and vacation time, pensions and health insurance).

Clinton administration officials balked at recognizing a gap that didn't take into account the value of those perks. It said a "total compensation" comparison was needed. As a result, the annual raises called for by the pay law calculations have been reduced each of the last six years by the White House. The president originally proposed a 4.4 percent average raise for feds in 2000. That was based on data showing much higher increases would be needed (like 9.05 percent in the Washington-Baltimore area) to narrow the pay gap.

The stage was set for a 4.8 percent civilian raise when Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) set that amount for military personnel. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) pushed for equal treatment for civilians. The higher civilian raise was nailed down when Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.)--with bipartisan help from other fed-friendly House members--made it part of the Treasury-Postal Service appropriations bill. Hoyer is famous for using that appropriations bill to get higher last-minute raises for civil servants.

If Clinton decides to allocate 1 percentage point of the federal pay raise for locality adjustments, with the remaining 3.8 percent as an across-the-board adjustment, Washington-Baltimore would come out in the middle of the pack of city-by-city raises. Under that split, feds in San Francisco would get the highest increase--a total adjustment of 5.59 percent. Other cities getting more than Washington-Baltimore would be, in this order: Houston; Los Angeles; New York; Chicago; Detroit; Boston; Hartford, Conn.; Denver; San Diego; Miami; Portland, Ore.; Philadelphia; Seattle; Sacramento; and Cincinnati.

Washington-Baltimore would get 4.94 percent, the same as Minneapolis and just a little more than the 4.9 percent for Dallas. Other cities getting less would be Milwaukee; Columbus, Ohio; Atlanta; Richmond (4.76 percent); Dayton, Ohio; Orlando; Pittsburgh; St. Louis; Huntsville, Ala.; Indianapolis; and Kansas City, which would get a 4.69 percent adjustment. Feds in cities not listed would get 4.69 percent.

Online Insurance Advice

At noon today, Bill Smith, health insurance expert for the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, will go online to answer questions from current and retired feds about the best health plans for 2000. The open season--when feds and retirees can pick a new health plan--runs through Dec. 13.

Premiums are going up an average 9.3 percent next year (some much less, some much more). Most plans that formerly let Medicare-eligible retirees get free prescription drugs by mail now will charge a co-payment ranging from $5 to $20 for a 90-day supply.

To "chat" with Smith today go to: washingtonpost.com.

Internet Sources

Feds and retirees have a number of Web site options to help with insurance shopping. They can go to washingtonpost.com to get recent Federal Diary columns or other articles on the open season.

People also can visit www.narfe.org, or go to the Office of Personnel Management's health insurance site at www.opm.gov/insure/html/openseas.htm or to www.openseason.com.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com.