(L to r) MetCom members Bryan “Puff’ Barthelme, Mike Thompson, Chairman Steve Willing, Bob Russell and Charles “Sonny” Pessagno

California, MD — A smoldering fissure within the St. Mary’s County Metropolitan Commission (MetCom) widened at the April 23 meeting as a decision on the Fiscal Year 2016 budget ended with a 3-2 vote. Chairman Steve Willing, who also opposed the vote that prevailed, is unable to vote except to break a tie.

The majority vote passed the rate change presented at the April 1 public hearing that had been recommended by a consultant. But the big bone of contention was over pay raises for MetCom employees.

In a preliminary vote before the public hearing, the commission proposed giving a one-percent cost-of- living adjustment (COLA) to all employees except their attorney, but to limit step increases only to those in grade 13 and below. Top salary in Step 13 is $59,880.

That salary proposal was taken to the April 1 MetCom budget hearing at which time veteran MetCom employee DuWayne Potter asked the commission to reconsider. Potter called the decision “arbitrary.” He said it was hard to take for employees who are professional and “take pride in what we do.” He also called the action “haphazard and unfair.”

“If you tell me I don’t deserve a pay increase because I make too much money that is ludicrous and offensive,” Potter said.

When it came time to make a decision on the budget at the April 23 meeting, Chief Financial Officer Becky Shick presented the commission members with a second alternative that included a one-percent COLA and one step for everybody.

Commission member Bryan “Puff” Barthelme wanted to know what was going on. Barthelme had strongly criticized the salary of MetCom General Counsel Attorney Jacquelyn Meiser, the former executive director, at an earlier meeting. Barthelme had led the charge for a lower salary increase for the higher paid employees and Meiser had voluntarily opted out of a COLA for herself.

Barthelme said he thought the decision had been made about salaries, and Meiser informed him that was only a vote to move the process along; the final vote was to be made at that meeting. Commission member Bob Russell said he had asked for Shick to come up with an alternative proposal and Willing agreed that he had also asked.

Schick said the $82,000 to pay for steps for everyone and the COLA for Meiser could come from the commission’s reserve.

“I don’t think this is fair to the commission. This is not the way to do things,” Barthelme angrily responded. “It’s totally wrong.

“You should have told the other commissioners you were going to slip this through,” Barthelme said, noting the first he had heard about it was when Shick presented it. Barthelme was told the proposal had been sent out to the commission members earlier.

Russell defended the proposal to put back the raises for MetCom employees. Russell said of the earlier vote, “You are telling MetCom employees we don’t care about them.” He added, “We are going to see people walking.”

MetCom member Charles “Sonny” Pessagno, who had been quiet up to that point, responded, “I think people are overpaid who work here and if they want to quit they can walk.”

Barthelme said he believed that commission employees work hard but noted there had been no defections because of salary in the previous year. Willing responded to Barthelme, “It was a more friendly environment last year.”

Russell then made a motion to adopt the second option with the increases for all employees. He got no second. Barthelme then made the motion for the budget that went to public hearing and that passed 3-2 with Pessagno and member Mike Mummaugh supporting it. Russell and new member Mike Thompson voted against that motion.

The commission also adopted a capital improvement plan, with Pessagno voting against. He said the commission was dealing with aging infrastructure and no new customers to pay for it. Calling the capital plan ambitious, he said the commission needed to approach the future conservatively. “I am reluctant to go this ambitious.”

The commission’s rate proposals are usually the most controversial, but this year the rate change  actually lowers costs for the majority of ratepayers so there was little disagreement with it at the public hearing. There was no opposition to the proposed rates at the April 23 decision-making meeting.

The budget calls for a major change in how rates are assessed, with more of an emphasis on how much water is consumed instead of with the previous flat rates.

The rate change was based on a consultant’s study. The budget proposes to implement the rates in that study. According to Chief Financial Officer Becky Shick, during a presentation at the public hearing, the commission rates must be sustainable by providing “a fair and equitable distribution of costs to customers and promote resource conservation.”

The new rate structure has a combination of a fixed “Readiness to Serve Charge” and a fee based on usage. Very low usage for residential customers could save them as much as 30 percent over their existing rates.

There’s one final budget step for MetCom. They have to present their capital plan for approval next month by the county commissioners.

Contact Dick Myers at news@thebaynet.com