Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Commissioners plan their own raises

Increases to be evaluated by citizen committee


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer


The above chart shows the current salaries of elected officials, the numbers that guided the budgeted salary increase pool and the amount that elected officials would be making if the entire amount is approved after being reviewed by a citizen committee. Express graphic by Kate Wutz

Blaine County's tentative budget will include a $90,000 pool for salary increases for elected officials, including up to $63,795 for commissioner salaries.

The salary adjustments were suggested in light of data about the salaries of elected officials in other counties collected by Blaine County Human Resources Generalist Susan Potucek and County Administrator Derek Voss.

Potucek said that according to her findings, the salaries of five elected officials—including the three county commissioners—should be raised by anywhere from $6,500 for the sheriff and to $34,713 for the county commissioners.

"The commissioners' current salary reflects a part-time salary, and the board should reevaluate that," Voss said during a budget hearing on Wednesday, July 11. "We're not suggesting you adopt this as a salary—what we are suggesting is that you look at that from a different vantage point."

Elected officials are not eligible for the proposed employee market-rate adjustments and merit pool that will be included in the 2013 tentative budget.

According to the fiscal 2012 published budget, the commissioners make $55,434 per year. The data from Voss and Potucek suggest that a market-rate wage would be more along the lines of $90,147—more in line with Ada County commissioners, who make $93,000 a year. Canyon County commissioners are paid based on experience, and salaries ranged from $78,399 to $82,852 in 2010.

County Commissioner Angenie McCleary pointed out this disparity among counties when the data was presented last Wednesday, but Voss advised her to be careful in comparisons.

"The assumption is that other counties do [salary adjustments] in some rational form," said Voss, who is a former administrator of Ada County. "I have worked with them enough to know that this is a big assumption."

One major concern of the commissioners was that too low a salary could prevent others from running for office if they simply could not afford to. Commissioner Tom Bowman said during a budget hearing on compensation Monday that many qualified people who might be of value to the county currently have better-paying jobs, including teachers and engineers.

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"It's a policy question of whether we should broaden the pool of who can sit in these chairs," he said. "[There are] a whole host of professionals that make substantially more than this position does."

Commissioner Larry Schoen admitted that he could not serve as commissioner without other sources of income, including his farm, and pointed out that all commissioners also have spouses working full-time.

However, he added that raising salaries for elected officials, especially for commissioners, is politically tricky, especially in a recession in which taxpayers are still "in crisis."

"The pitfall is always going to be in the politics," Schoen said. "[But] if people really disagree and think that we have not added value, they have the beautiful situation where they can vote us out of office."

The tentative budget will include a pool of money that has been budgeted for salary increases for the coroner ($10,601), clerk ($7,812), sheriff ($6,508) and commissioners ($21,265 each).

A citizen committee will be formed to determine how much of an increase is warranted for the commissioners, but county staff and officials agreed that setting a figure for commissioner salaries that is no higher that of the county clerk would be prudent and perhaps reduce political backlash.

Voss added, however, that the number is not meant to be a recommendation, simply a number to make the budgeting process easier.

"We are not recommending anything," he said, adding that a recommendation could have unwanted influence on the committee. "I would recommend this if this was the real world, but it isn't. This is the politics of government."

Expenses such as salaries can be reduced from the tentative to the final budget, but not increased. Voss said the citizen committee would make a recommendation before the final budget is set in September.

Kate Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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