A Rebuttal on Police Pay

There is no denying Howard County Police Union President Jim Fitzgerald's claim that it is expensive to live in Howard County. Beyond that fact, however, his May 6 letter to the editor grossly misleads the public and misrepresents the facts regarding police salaries.

Last year, over two-thirds of Howard County's union-represented police officers earned more than $50,000. At the beginning of my administration, the base salary average for union members was $41,447. It is now $55,635. This equates, on average, to a 34 percent increase in the base salaries of those 156 union members who were also in the union at the beginning of this administration -- or an average increase of more than 7 percent per year. In most people's estimation, this would contradict Mr. Fitzgerald's assertion that our police officers are being "ignored by elected officials."

When you compare the starting-salary figure Mr. Fitzgerald and his union leaders choose to cite, Howard County does rank lower than some of its counterparts in surrounding jurisdictions. However, what Mr. Fitzgerald fails to tell readers is that a typical Howard County police officer first class with 10 years' experience (which constitutes close to 30 percent of the union-represented police force) is paid more than counterparts in surrounding jurisdictions.

While Mr. Fitzgerald conveniently cites the costs of certain living expenses and goes on to say that "current salary deficiencies make it impossible to even attempt to live life similar to the average county resident," he fails to elaborate on the many added benefits police are given to help decrease their living expenses -- a free automobile for those who reside in Howard County, specialty pay opportunities above salary, free work clothes (plus dry cleaning and shoes), a retirement package that pays 50 percent of salary after 20 years and 80 percent of salary after 30 years, 25 days of personal and annual leave for the typical union-represented police officer, and an average of $600 each month toward health care costs!

The accuracy of his claim of being consistently denied raises "on par" with other area law enforcement agencies hinges on the on-par qualifier. With the exception of fiscal 2003, when all county employees went without a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), police have received COLAs each fiscal year. In 2000 the increase was 3.4 percent, in 2001 it was 3.6 percent, and in 2002 it was 4 percent. For 2004, a 2 percent COLA was given at the beginning of the fiscal year and an additional 2 percent will be given at the end of the fiscal year. In addition to these COLAs, a 3.5 percent step increment was also awarded each of these years to union-represented police officers who were eligible.

In fiscal 2005, another 2 percent COLA is proposed, with an additional 1 percent COLA to be added at the end of the fiscal year and again a 3.5 percent step for union-represented police officers who are eligible. In some instances, these adjustments were more than those offered in other jurisdictions and, yes, in other instances they were less. But for obvious reasons, Mr. Fitzgerald chooses to interpret "on par with" as "equal to or higher than" all others.

Bottom line: "Grossly underpaid" is a gross exaggeration in light of today's economic environment. The majority of Howard County's Police Department has too much integrity to allow the public it serves to be misled in this fashion. Yes, our police are worth their weight in gold, as are other public servants such as firefighters and teachers; unfortunately, they are not above the stagnant economic atmosphere in which America's working middle class finds itself struggling today.

I remain committed to the public safety of Howard County citizens and will continue to ensure that our police salaries remain competitive, even in such challenging times. I am proud of what we've accomplished thus far and pledge to continue to do what is reasonably possible, given the economic circumstances, to reach agreements with the unions that represent our employees.

James N. Robey

Howard County Executive