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May 15, 2009

Budget Time, Bad Political Jokes

Roy Meachum

In the fat years – and we've had more than several recently – budget time takes on the tenor of holiday dinners fed by someone else. Local politicians get to say "You're welcome." A lot. Particularly to the Board of Education.


More than 20 years ago I received an award from the state teachers' association in recognition of my column's fight for livable livings for the men and women in the classrooms. Now the general criticism runs the other way. School system pay, along with the other branches of county government, grew mightily during those fat years. (You can check out the salaries in's reference listing to the left.)


Mayor Jeff Holtzinger has a big gripe. The county commissioners fully intend to keep back a million dollars already paid by city residents in taxes. The shortage, he said, will potentially cost 14 officers from the Frederick Police Department. Meanwhile, everybody read the News-Post story about how Schools Superintendent Linda Burgee figures to take home nearly $300,000 this year. For the record, the mayor earns $75,304 and wants the pay to stay the same into a new administration; he's filed for re-election.


County schools take about half-billion dollars, much of which is funded by the state. This year Winchester Hall will pay $229 million, $22 million less than the school board requested. Without necessarily agreeing with its most vocal critics, it's possible to wonder how the school board could demand so much money in this time of recession. The answer is not complicated: Its backers pack every public meeting on schools. They loom over every politician who fails to vote their way.


Jan Gardner is not only the current commissioners' president; she never ducks an opportunity to brandish her political sword for an educational cause. While knowing the mayor already wiped out a $10.5 million deficit to wind up with approximately $80 million, Ms. Gardner commented:


"I am surprised there is a suggestion of cutting police," she said. "There are plenty of other options."


Reading reporter Marge Neal's story about the superintendent's list of options and benefits, I'm frankly surprised Superintendent Linda Burgee insists on keeping them all. Her end-of-year bonus (ca. $16,000) seems hardly fair. While her original contract allowed no pay for vacation and sick days, her new one does, to the tune of a possible $37,000. Consider: this is enough to feed, house and support a family for a year. Many Frederick citizens get by on less.


While neither the mayor nor Winchester Hall possesses the power to tinker with a board of education contract, you would think someone in our school community would be smart enough to suggest Ms. Burgee might make some recognition of these economic hard days. Kicking back a few of her many golden eggs would be smart. That way of thinking could be totally foreign to our officials. Holding a financial hostage is not.


"The commissioners voted 5-0 to impound $220,000 in payments to the City of Frederick," News-Post reporter Justin Palk wrote. The money is intended to make improvements to the Thomas Pool. You might ask, gentle reader, why it was withheld?


Ms. Gardner told Mr. Palk the commissioners will hold the money "until after future discussions on the tax equity program." Commissioner David Gray's observation was more to the point: "It becomes a chip in the great debate (in the) next legislative session."


The other warm spring day when Pushkin took me out for our usual walk, a nice-looking clean-shaven young man complimented the English pointer on his good manners. Only when he was completely behind us, he said:


"Look, I don't want to bother you but do you have any change. Two months ago I was making $18 an hour."


In some budget times, politicians' bad jokes are funnier than other years.



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