Harford’s Craig Responds to County Council on Bonuses

… Council president criticizes executive’s lack of communication, but Craig says he’s been forthcoming …


BY BRYNA ZUMER, bzumer@theaegis.com

2:54 PM EST, December 9, 2011

Sparring continued over a proposed $1,250 bonus for Harford County government employees following the Harford County Council’s hearing Tuesday on the legislation to fund the bonuses.

Council members voted to table the budget transfer legislation, some of them blaming County Executive David Craig and his staff for a communications breakdown over the bonus plan.

But Craig said Thursday the council’s president, Billy Boniface, had told him Monday evening there would be no vote taken on legislation Tuesday.

Craig had already issued a statement Wednesday in response to some of the council members’ comments at Tuesday’s hearing, which he did not attend.

In the statement, Craig said he regretted being unable to attend the hearing, saying he had been in New York for “critical” meetings about the county’s bond rating.

He noted that county employees had not received a pay increase in three years, while also absorbing increases in their health care premiums and pension benefits.

He also said he appreciated the support of labor unions, especially AFSCME, MCEA, the Harford County Deputies Association and the Harford County Correctional Officers Association.

“I appreciate the time Council President Boniface and his colleagues are taking in considering this legislation,” Craig said. “I am committed to seeking this one-time pay bonus and look forward to working with Council President Boniface and members of the Harford County Council to do so.”

In a meeting with members of The Aegis news staff Thursday morning, Craig said none of the council members had questioned him about the legislation before the hearing, even though all seven had ample opportunities to raise any concerns.

“None of the council members had expressed any concern to me,” he said. “They never ask me a question on any issue.”

Regarding the council’s concern about some school employees being affected if one union does not agree to the bonuses, Craig replied, “That was the union’s issue.” He said he and the county government do not negotiate with the school system’s five unions, the board of education does.

Craig also said he had reminded Boniface Monday during a political fundraiser both attended that he (Craig) would be in New York Tuesday. He said Boniface was not concerned with his absence. “He told me the bill was going to be tabled anyway,” added Craig, who also said in the past the council has told him “they do not want me at their meetings.”

Craig said he believes the majority of the county government’s workforce supports the bonus proposal.

In late October, Craig announced he would give every county government employee, every sheriff’s office employee and every school system employee a one-time, $1,250 bonus to make up for what for most of them have been three years of no pay increases. Most county government employees also had to absorb what amounted to a 2 percent pay cut in 2009-2010, when Craig furloughed them for five days.

C. John Sullivan III, a deputy chief of staff who directs the county’s Division of Agriculture, said he isn’t counting on the bonus but would welcome getting it.

“No, I certainly was not,” Sullivan replied in a voicemail answer Friday to a reporter’s question if he has been counting on the bonus. “I think most employees would realize that it requires county Council approval, so from a personal standpoint, no I certainly wasn’t counting on it. Certainly wouldn’t spend it until I knew I had it, but it’s nice to know that the county executive and the administration are looking out for their employees.”

Asked what the bonus would mean to him and his family, Sullivan replied: “Well, the timing is wonderful if it were to be before the end of the calendar year, it would certainly come in handy paying holiday bills and at the end of the fiscal year [June], it would be wonderful timing with summer and vacation schedules. It would certainly be a nice bonus to have cash on hand to help with summer vacation schedules.”

Though many of the 7,000 employees affected have expressed thanks for the bonus since it was announced during a press conference, there have been some dissenters, as well as a smattering of community opposition. Money for the bonus program, which is expected to cost almost $11.3 million to cover the bonus and payroll taxes, is coming out of a $32 million surplus from the 2010-2011 budget.

The size of the surplus has caused some uneasiness among county council members, a few who have expressed their displeasure that Craig announced the bonus plan without soliciting their views about how the budget surplus should be used.

Boniface, meanwhile, responded Wednesday to county spokesman Bob Thomas’ earlier statement that the council had known for some time that Craig would be away for Tuesday’s hearing.

The council president also confirmed that he has not been pleased with the administration’s failure to approach council members to make its case for the bonus.

“I was a little taken aback by Mr. Thomas’ remarks,” Boniface said. “There’s been no communication… at the end of the day, the biggest concern is, once we approve this transfer, we have no say over how the money is spent and that is putting the council, at a mid-budget cycle, at a huge disadvantage.”

Boniface said if legislative liaison Nancy Giorno, who defended the bonuses on Craig’s behalf during Tuesday’s hearing, does not understand the council’s concern regarding the way the bonus is spent, then “she doesn’t understand how the legislative process works.”

Craig said Thursday morning that he has been in communication with the council members and that he is still waiting for five of the seven to respond to his request for a list of their preferences on how to spend the portion of the surplus Craig is designating for capital projects. At his Oct. 27 press conference announcing the bonuses, Craig said there wouldn’t be a plan for the spending that capital money, about $13 million, until after he had input from the council members. Harford County Councilmen Chad Shrodes and Dick Slutzky attended that press conference.

Councilman Dion Guthrie said Wednesday, however, that he does expect the council to vote on the bonus legislation at its next meeting on Dec. 13.

He also said he expects all the county employee unions, including the union which represents 3,000 school teachers, to come on board and support the bonus. The teachers union’s leader has said the group wanted the council to approve the funding legislation before agreeing to the bonus. One other school employees union has not signed off on receiving the bonus.

“We were very leery about going forward with the bill because if we left two unions out … the [county] administration would not have anything to do with giving them anything,” Guthrie said. “This money wouldn’t go to the school board. This money is coming from the administration.”

Guthrie said he is confident about a resolution soon, noting that “we have given them [the unions] a week to come to an agreement.”

Under the plan originally announced by Craig, the bonus is supposed to be paid in two equal installments, one this month and the other in June 2012.

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