The Raise as Catalyst
Last week, the Frederick City Board of Aldermen voted 4-0, with one member absent, to make a small adjustment to the $69 million city budget; an adjustment that constituted 0.0008% of that $69 million figure, and one that will not even take effect for three more years, when its impact on the budget would be even less significant.
It is an adjustment that would feature approximately the same financial impact on the city budget as a radio button cloth would have on the purchase of a new Mercedes.
Well, apparently this tiny adjustment has caused the world to stop spinning on its axis, to hear some of the public reaction to it.
I am referring, of course, to the salary increase (all the way up to $25,000) the aldermen have just voted for themselves. Well, actually not for themselves - the raise won't kick in until the next Board of Aldermen takes office in 2010; but never mind inconvenient details like those. Some self-righteous elements have duly thumped their chests and boldly declared that "This is a horrible disgrace!"
I can understand their indignation. Heaven forbid that the aldermen of good ole Frederick be compensated at the same level as those of Rockville. Will the outrages never cease?
It's not the money, they say. It's the principle of the thing. Well, let's take a look at these principles, shall we?
Frederick's aldermen are not cloistered, independently wealthy socialites dabbling in city government to indulge their egos. (We're not the District of Columbia.) They are regular people, employed in day jobs just like the rest of us. They are committed, dedicated citizens who have taken on the massive responsibility of administering Maryland's second largest city.
And they do this while many of the rest of us are curling upon our sofas watching "American Idol" or playing Buzztime at the sports bar. They work 35-hour weeks after they're done with the jobs that pay their bills.
The typical alderman's day - well, evening - involves board meetings, commission meetings, NAC meetings, educational events, and workshops. The special committees - like the Planning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission - also soak up an enormous amount of our aldermen's time and resources. And that's without factoring in the hours spent on preparing for these meetings and discussions, often involving the perusal of arcane documentation drier than the Sahara; and all this for wages that would embarrass a Wal-Mart compensation consultant.
And, of course, given the easy accessibility of the aldermen to the public in the age of e-mail and high-speed Internet, Frederick's elected officials typically spend an hour or more answering constituents' messages. Not that it's a complaint - that's what our elected officials are there for, after all - but it's a time-absorber all the same.
The current Board of Aldermen has even gone beyond the previous parameters of the council. Unlike previous administrations, this board has ensured that Frederick is represented in the Maryland Municipal League and in the Washington Council of Government. This wasn't the case prior to this board taking office.
And this has been critical for building relationships with other state jurisdictions - which is absolutely necessary for the resolution of high-profile issues like traffic planning. You think the city could use some traffic relief? Our aldermen are making sure we're being heard. The City of Frederick is receiving some significant value added from these efforts.
This Board of Aldermen has also taken care of hardworking city employees, garnering them a 4% raise this year, the largest in years. Alderman Kip Koontz has been personally working to restore the parking benefit for city workers, working with Mayor Jeff Holtzinger to accomplish this. And the Department of Public Works is now getting a cost differential across the board.
Frederick's aldermen have been worth every penny they've earned - and then some. Why are so many begrudging them a reasonable raise - their first in almost a decade?
It's hard to say, really. The hearings on the raise - initiated by Mayor Holtzinger, by the way - were advertised to the public in the legally prescribed manner. The hearings and discussion were no secret and no surprise. Any citizen who objected to the raise had the opportunity to show up at City Hall and register his concerns with the board. If he or she didn't, that's unfortunate; but why is it City Hall's fault? Or is it just so much easier to do nothing and then complain after the fact?
And it can't be the money. The Carroll Creek Project cost overruns far outstripped the measly $60,000 these alderman raises are going to run. And I don't recall the spire at the corner of North Bentz Street and Carroll Parkway triggering such a virulent reaction with the public, even if it cost more and delivered less.
There's always an element of the public, I suppose, that resents money being spent on living, breathing human beings. It's the type of person who doesn't bat an eye when our federal government can't account for $10 billion lost in Iraq, but complains bitterly about a $200 tax credit to a struggling working-class family.
And I suspect we're hearing disproportionately from these kinds of people. My guess is that they'd be happier if we abolished the aldermen and spent a half-million on five remote-controlled robots instead.
But I'm not among them. Frederick's aldermen are easily worth $25,000 apiece per year. At least.