By LAWRENCE SCHOEN
his year, like last year, the question of county elected officials’ compensation is a hot local political issue. My approach to such issues is to face them squarely. Also, because you elect us, you deserve a better explanation of the county commissioners’ approach to it than you have received up to now.
When I became a county commissioner nearly seven years ago, my most important goals included to make your county government more customer-service oriented, to enhance its effectiveness, increase its efficiency, improve its internal and external transparency and accountability and, above all, to ensure the public’s trust in the integrity of all that we do and how we do it. A lot of progress has been made towards these goals.
My belief is that government can perform very well and be very well managed just like any company or other institution. The last thing any commissioner wants is for one issue like this—one line item, the county commissioner salary—to undermine trust in all that has been and needs to be accomplished, whether in the public’s mind, or employees’.
Not one of us commissioners has said, “Gee, we’re doing such a fine job, we should raise our salaries for fiscal year 2014.” We did not say that last year either. What we did ask, as a matter of corporate policy, is what is the job of a county commissioner and what is the appropriate level of compensation for that position within the Blaine County organization, relative to all other employee positions and to the market for like positions in this community?
In 2006, before my time, the county hired a specialist consulting firm to evaluate county employee salaries, which were all over the map, but in general, at a time of economic boom, were considered kind of a joke. The commissioners set aside nearly $300,000 for fiscal year 2007 to allow for the anticipated upward adjustments. Job descriptions, internal equity and market equity all had to be addressed seriously and corrected. We’ve been working gradually to accomplish this ever since and, as in any organization, it will probably remain a work in progress.
The last leg of a complete review of compensation policy was all elected officials’ salaries, which has only been completed this year. Upward adjustments have been proposed for the sheriff, coroner and commissioner position salaries. The position that earns the most public attention is county commissioner. Idaho code directs commissioners to set their own salaries in the budget process as they do for all employees. It is appropriate that public employee compensation be tied to a coherent policy. That is true for any accountable organization. All three commissioners agree on this point.
Proposed salaries are based on an established framework for employee compensation, based in turn on job descriptions and analysis of economic statistics affecting employment in our market.
Commissioners also considered that in other Idaho counties where commissioners work full time, the salaries for assessor, treasurer, clerk and commissioner positions are similar. The proposed adjustment has put the commissioner salary at the same level as the county clerk, auditor and recorder.
Three main issues have surfaced in this ensuing debate. The first is the threshold question, “What is—or should be—the job of a Blaine County commissioner?” The second is the size of the proposed adjustment for that position, from a current salary of about $62,000 up to about $82,000 per year. The third is the very idea of commissioners awarding such an increase to themselves … and all at once.
The scope of the Blaine County commissioner job is extremely broad. In general, we work in over 50 different administrative, program and public policy areas. Blaine County government is fortunate to have had strong, dedicated county leadership for many, many years. In turn, Blaine has been a leader among Idaho counties in the policies and actions it has adopted and the relationships it has developed in response to the highest community standards and expectations. It has remained a leader in the face of dramatic growth in its population, demographic diversity and often complex social and environmental challenges.
Such leadership does not happen accidentally. It demands hard work and focus and commitment. This is a full-time, top-level management job, in Blaine County, with the highest cost of living in Idaho. Other elected officials’ positions have long been full-time and those positions are accepted as “jobs,” albeit jobs requiring election. The commissioner position is perceived through a more political lens—befitting the significant statutory roles and responsibilities ascribed to it—and is therefore subject to the most political pressures.
It was believed, and at one time stated, that hiring a county administrator would lessen the day-to-day demands on Blaine County’s commissioners. It has not. It has enabled and even caused commissioners to perform better and to do more, but not less. It has afforded commissioners the opportunity, with the help of other officials and staff, to begin reshaping Blaine County government into a more responsive and professionally functioning agency. It has equipped us to do a better job identifying and evaluating alternatives to county actions, including their associated risks; therefore, to engage in better decision-making practices. It has allowed us to work more effectively with others on local, state and national policies affecting all Blaine County citizens.
Everybody understands the near absurdity of asking a public official to set their own salary. Everybody understands the value of fair compensation for a fair day’s work. Rarely do we know the work involved in each other’s jobs, though. Everybody understands that government plays an important role in our society, but opinions vary greatly about what that role should be and whether government is capable of performing it well. Everybody has opinions on issues, but few will run for public office if they simply cannot afford to do so. Therefore, a reasonable balance must be struck between fair compensation for elected positions and the public’s expectations for public-sector salaries. Let’s not forget that two county commissioners in the past five years have left office in the middle of their terms to take higher paying jobs. Let’s acknowledge too that no one has ever sought the job for the money; you’d be crazy and disillusioned if you did.
In my mind, the questions of what commissioners should do or not do, the salary for the position, if, when, or how an adjustment should be made are still debatable and they’ll remain that way into the future. Local government is just that, local. Local government officials are far more likely to be in line with you at the supermarket than, say, a congressional representative. You don’t have to dial an area code to reach them. On that note, a final decision on the fiscal year 2014 budget will be made Sept. 3 at a public hearing, during which comments will be taken. In the interim, you are encouraged to contact commissioners individually, if you wish, to discuss this issue and express your views. County contact information is available in the phone book or on the county website, www.blainecoutny.org.
Lawrence Schoen is the chairman of the Blaine County Board of County Commissioners.