The salaries for the county executive and county council when Frederick County transitions to charter government in 2014 will be among the lowest in the state, according to an analysis by The Gazette of similar pay in other jurisdictions.
The executive’s $95,000 annual salary will rank ahead of only Wicomico County, which has a population less than half the size of Frederick County’s, according to a survey of salaries conducted by the Maryland Association of Counties, an statewide advocacy group.
And the council members’ $22,500-a-year salaries will rank ahead of just Dorchester, Wicomico and Talbot counties.
Frederick County has a population of 233,385 compared to Wicomico’s 98,733, Talbot’s 37,782 and Dorchester’s 32,618.
Currently, each of the five members of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners are paid $45,000 a year.
There were concerns raised prior to the referendum vote in November that charter government would be more expensive, so the board tasked with drafting the proposal decided it didn’t want a salary structure that would increase the cost of county government, said Ken Coffey, the chairman of the since disbanded panel.
“That was kind of the overriding theme of the whole discussion of charter government,” he said.
Coffey said the board didn’t want to give opponents of charter government, which had failed to pass in a previous effort, a talking point leading up to the election.
There was a desire in the development of the charter not to set compensation for the executive and council substantially higher than the current cost of the commissioners, said Bob Kresslein, the vice-chairman of the charter board.
The board didn’t want the executive’s salary to become a distraction in the vote on whether to approve the charter, Kresslein said.
The salaries place Frederick County in the bottom tier of the 11 charter government counties around the state, according to MACo’s figures.
The county executive’s salary would be the second-lowest in the state, after Wicomico County’s $85,000 salary.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) tops the list at $180,474 for the current fiscal year, overseeing a jurisdiction of 863,420 people, according to census figures.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) is second at $175,000, leading a county of 971,777 residents.
Although Talbot and Dorchester counties have charter government, neither has an executive, instead electing a president of their county council to serve a one-year term as the top administrative official.
Of the two counties closest in population to Frederick, Harford County Executive David R. Craig (R) makes $102,111 per year, while Howard County Executive Kenneth S. Ulman (D) earns $163,482.
Harford’s population is listed at 244,826 and Howard’s at 287,085.
The Frederick charter provides for a county executive and a seven-member council. Five of the council members will serve districts, while two members will be elected to at-large seats.
The charter provides for a Compensation Review Commission to make recommendations to the executive’s salary, with the council able to increase the executive’s salary with a vote of four members, or decrease it with the approval of five members.
The charter directs the council to set up a similar commission to review its salary every four years, whose recommendation the council can either accept, reject or decrease, but may not increase.
That way, public officials who are accountable to the voters will be making decisions on salary increases, rather than the members of the charter board setting them, Kresslein said.
If the salaries are too low, they can be raised, he said. But if they’re set too high, it is unlikely they would be lowered.
Many opponents of charter government believed the salaries were set arbitrarily low as an initial step before they will be inevitably raised, said Bob White, a former member of the Frederick County Planning Commission who spoke out against the proposal.
Along with an increase in salaries, charter government will almost certainly lead to an increase in the county’s bureaucracy and a resulting increase in the cost of government, White said.
Council members in Montgomery and Prince George’s each make more than $99,000 a year, the figures show. Harford council members make $35,168, while Howard’s make $54,600.
It is “a joke” that council members will make less than the $25,000 earned by the Frederick Board of Aldermen, whose workload doesn’t involve dealing with the school board, 26 fire companies and 12 municipalities, among other duties, said Charles Jenkins, a former county commissioner who served four years on the board and two years as a state delegate.
“It’s a heavy workload,” said Jenkins, who opposed the charter and believes it is inevitable that the salaries will be raised.
Council members will be expected to attend every community meeting, fire company banquet or other event that their constituents hold, said John “Lennie” Thompson Jr., who served 12 years as a county commissioner.
The $22,500 salary will disappear quickly as the mileage and other expenses begin to pile up, he said.
The charter allows for, but doesn’t guarantee, reimbursement for “reasonable and necessary expenses” incurred by council members.
No one’s ever going to make money in public service, but they should be able to break even, Thompson said.
While salaries shouldn’t be unreasonably high, setting them too low opens the door to possible corruption, particularly for the countywide seats that will require a greater expense, he said.
“I just don’t think you’re going to see anyone running for those seats except the ‘junior executive’ types who are tied to the development community,” Thompson said.
Over the years, some members of the board of commissioners have spent a great deal of time on county business, while others have spent much less, said Elliss Burruss, a councilman from Brunswick who supported the charter move.
Ultimately, how much time it takes will be up to each council member and what they want to accomplish in office, he said.
But Burruss said he thinks plenty of qualified candidates will run because they want to contribute.
Former Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty said she hopes people look at the council as a civic duty.
“We always get a lot of good people running for office,” she said.
Dougherty said she supported charter government because it is a more effective form of government, although she doesn’t agree with all parts of the document and thinks the executive’s salary is too low.
She hopes the first executive and council will structure the agenda so the full-time executive can handle the minutiae of governing, freeing the part-time council to tackle the larger issues affecting the county.
Dougherty would also like to see the executive and council quickly set up a schedule of cost-of-living adjustments or a task force to handle salary issues to move those topics out of the political arena before members start running for re-election.
“I have a feeling this first council is going to have a lot of stress,” Dougherty said.