- - Thursday, September 19, 2013

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In these tough economic times, not many people stop to worry about the plight of the underprivileged members of the Montgomery County Council in the Maryland suburbs of the nation’s capital. Fortunately, the members, the equivalent of aldermen in many cities, might get little respect from their constituents, but they do have the authority to look after themselves. This is a responsibility they take very, very seriously. They’re giving themselves a 17.5 percent raise.

The harried elected officials claim that social media has made their jobs far more demanding than they used to be, when everyone used the telephone or wrote letters, putting ink on paper. So we must blame Facebook and Twitter. Citizens who bother public officials with questions expect answers. A seven-member “citizens” panel, carefully selected by the council, this week recommended increasing a councilman’s pay from $106,394 to $125,000. To avoid the prospect of having to go to the trouble of voting on additional raises in the future, the plan, based on how Congress takes care of its own, would boost pay automatically. By 2017, the council members would be paid $136,258. That would pay for a lot of tweets.

Cristina Echavarren, who chaired the compensation-review panel, concedes that at first blush the increases seem unduly large, but on second blush, not so much. The institutions of the social media give the masses near real-time access to Montgomery lawmakers, and taken together with hearings and tweeting and community meetings, one council member says, it’s hard to overstate the demands of the job. George Leventhal, a Democrat, courageously avoids taking a forthright position on the raises, but says he works an average of 65 hours a week. He says all this without a third blush. “I’ve not made a judgment, one way or the other,” he told a radio interviewer, conceding that he expects to “get the input of my constituents.” Input is unpleasant and can sting, which is why politicians will cross the street to avoid input, but we predict that after getting all that input, he’ll vote for the raises.

Life in the private sector is tougher. A survey of 1,500 midsize and large private-sector U.S. employers, by the consulting firm Mercer, found employers anticipate raising salaries an average of 2.9 percent in 2014. This barely keeps pace with inflation. Since President Obama assumed office in 2009, the average annual salary increase has averaged about 2.5 percent. Raises of that size would not require a blush at a County Council chamber.

“It’s the amount and the speed of [the raise] that, I think, is problematic,” says council member Phil Andrews, a Democrat who supports a raise but a smaller one. He can afford to be generous about the ambitions of his colleagues. He’s running for county executive, and if he wins and the County Council approves the raises, he’ll get $190,000.

The citizens panel will present its recommendations to the County Council, all Democrats, on Tuesday, and if everything is properly greased, the raises should go through by the end of the year. The raises would achieve parity with the District of Columbia Council, whose members are paid $128,340 annually. Unfortunately, precedents spread quickly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The officials in Prince George’s County will discover that at $102,486, they’re underpaid, too. In neighboring Virginia, the Fairfax County supervisors are in rags and practically starving, since they’re paid only $75,000 annually. Someone must organize a bake sale.

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