February 2014

Commissioners don't need a 20 percent raise

Four state legislators are reportedly working on a bill to raise salaries for elected officials at both the state and county level. It’s an idea that has merit, but needs some tweaking.

According to the Durango Herald, the proposed bill would give the first raise in 16 years to Colorado’s governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer. Additionally, it would provide a 20 percent increase in pay to county commissioners as well as sheriffs, assessors, clerks, coroners, treasurers, and surveyors across the state.

The idea was prompted by the recommendations of an independent salary commission appointed by the Legislature. There’s pressure to pass the bill this year because raises cannot by law take effect until after the next election, so this is a critical window of time in order to provide raises for officials serving in the near future.

The folks advocating for the raises have made some good arguments. Deputy Attorney General David Blake told the Durango Herald that current salaries for the top five state elected officials rank in the bottom three in the country. “Quite frankly, over time, you will get what you pay for,” he said.

Likewise, advocates say that county officials haven’t had a raise since 2006, so this 20 percent hike would equate to an average raise of just 2.5 percent per year.

In general, we think the idea is worth considering – with one exception. We believe county commissioners should be excluded from these raises.

In Montezuma County, the commissioners make $58,500 per year. In La Plata County, it’s $72,500. (Counties are placed in one of six categories according to their population, assessed valuation, and other factors; officials’ salaries are tied to those categories.)

If the raises are implemented, then Montezuma County commissioners would earn $70,200 annually, and La Plata commissioners would get an annual paycheck of $87,000.

This strikes us as overly generous for a job that – in contrast to, say, the sheriff or the clerk – is not a full-time position.

Under state law, county commissioners are required to meet just once a month, although most commissions meet bi-monthly at a minimum. In Montezuma County, the board generally convenes at least three times a month, sometimes four.

Commissioners do have many duties, such as overseeing the budget and land-use policies, hiring certain officials such as the administrator, and acting as the primary policy-making entity in the county. It’s a big job and an important one; we don’t dispute that.

But the fact remains that, at least in counties such as Montezuma, it isn’t a full-time task. Even taking into account that the commissioners serve on other boards and committees beyond their regular Monday meetings, and also do quite a bit of talking with constituents outside of the commission room, they aren’t on duty full-time. And keep in mind that the median household income (that’s household, mind you) in Montezuma County was $44,102 during the years from 2008 through 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And that many people, during this lengthy economic downturn, have had no salary increase at all, whether 20 percent or 2.5 percent.

The majority of the commissioners who have been elected in Montezuma County over the past two decades have had other jobs that they kept even as they served on the board. We have no objection to this on principle, since the commission job is only a temporary, term-limited one, but it makes it obvious that being commissioners is not, for most of them, their only or sometimes even their primary work.

If lawmakers do decide to move forward with a bill to raise all these different elected officials’ salaries across the board, we hope they will consider placing some additional statutory requirements on county commissioners. The commissioners ought to be required to meet more than once a month, and there should be some stipulation as to how many meetings they can miss before they forgo their salary. We’d also like to see them mandated to keep a certain number of office hours per week – maybe if the commissioners were around to answer phones, the county could save a little money on other staff.

By no means are any of our concerns aimed at any current or past commissioners in particular. By and large they have all not only done their duties, but given far beyond what is required by law. But in this time when so many people are criticizing government spending, asking workers to suck it up and go without substantial pay increases for long periods, and cutting costs at every turn, it’s fair for citizens to demand that people who are paid a princely salary by local standards work at least as hard as the average janes and joes they’re supposed to serve.