Raising county salaries has always been contentious

By LIZ SKOCZYLAS

OBSERVER Mayville Bureau

MAYVILLE – The creation of a Salary Review Commission is a relatively recent addition to the Chautauqua County Charter.

In 1986, Carl O. Olson, R-Fredonia, was the first to suggest a citizens review committee to review the salaries of elected county officials and make recommendations to the legislature. Prior to this, the legislature created its own local laws regarding salary.

“Basically, it’s very difficult for elected officials to make decisions about their own salaries,” Olson said in 1986.

At the time, Olson was supported by fellow Republican Thomas Harte of Lakewood. Harte had pointed out that the elected officials’ salaries had been set by the majority party, which was often inclined to set the salary too low to avoid criticism.

In 1986, the county executive was receiving a salary of $54,724; the county sheriff received $41,000; the county clerk received $29,000 and legislators received $6,000.

Twenty-seven years later, the county executive receives a salary of $85,000; the sheriff, $83,740; clerk $53,640; and legislators, $9,000.

According to Olson’s proposal, a commission would be named every four years to review the salaries of elected county officials. The commission was to be named by the county legislature.

Steve Abdella, county attorney, said the proposal finally passed the legislature in December 1990, becoming a part of the county charter in 1991.

COUNTY CHARTER

The county charter says there shall be an appointed bipartisan County Salary Commission to review and recommend the salaries of all elected officials, except those whose salaries are established, directly or indirectly, by state law. The salary of all officers elected for a fixed term was not to be increased or diminished between the date of their election and the expiration of their term, except in accordance with a schedule adopted prior to the time the officer was elected to office, which provides higher or lower rates of compensation during the term, or as otherwise mandated by state or federal laws, rules or regulations. The charter also says the commission shall be composed of seven citizens appointed by the county legislature.

It is the duty of the commission to recommend to the county executive and county legislature salary adjustments for elected offices at least one year prior to the general election in which the office is scheduled to be filled.

SALARY REVIEW

By 2001, the county executive was receiving a salary of $80,000, the county clerk a salary of $47,000, sheriff $65,000 and legislators $9,000 based on recommendations from the Salary Review Commission. The last time legislators had authorized a pay raise for themselves was 1999. Prior to that, legislators had been earning $8,000.

The Salary Review Commission recommended salary hikes for the county executive, county legislators, sheriff and county clerk in 2001. Included in the 2001 recommendations were:

  • County executive – From $80,000 to $85,000, beginning in 2002.
  • Sheriff – From $65,000 to $70,000 in 2003, and then a $2,500 increase each year afterward until 2006, when the base salary would be $77,500.
  • County clerk – A $2,000 raise in each year of the next term, starting in 2002 with a hike from $47,000 to $49,000 and resulting in a $55,000 salary in 2005.
  • Legislators – Increasing base salary from $9,000 to $9,500 in 2004.

Despite the recommendations from the Salary Review Commission, some of the recommended salary levels were changed by legislators. The county clerk salary was changed from $47,000 to $53,000, while the sheriff was changed from $65,000 to $72,500. Legislators chose to keep the recommendation of an $85,000 salary for county executive, and keep their salary of $9,000 with no changes. The changes were approved by County Executive Mark Thomas in November 2001. However, not all legislators were happy with the changes.

Joseph Trusso, D-Jamestown, objected to the way the salaries were proposed. Additionally, Trusso had said wages were determined without enough input from other legislators.

“We don’t need a salary-setting committee to (set salaries),” Trusso had said. “We should do that.”

In 2006, the Salary Review Commission was called into question by then-legislator Jim Caflisch, R-French Creek, who accused the commission of not following the rules of order, meeting without a quorum and going into an unauthorized executive session. The commission later that year suggested no salary increases after discussing only two positions: County legislators and the county comptroller, a position which no longer exists.

Following months of debate, a special Salary Review Commission was put into place in 2008 in order to review the compensation package for county legislators, executive, sheriff and clerk. Two Jamestown legislators spoke in opposition to the decision.

“It’s a waste of time,” said Scot Stutzman, I-Jamestown. “Hopefully people will be held accountable who wanted to keep their insurance. Hopefully voters won’t forget next election.”

Additionally, Tina Hallquist, C-Jamestown, opposed the decision.

“We had a salary review board in 2006 that did not recommend a raise at that time,” she said. “We have a permanent salary review board already. They are our voters – the constituents that pay the taxes that our salary comes out of. They have already spoken, loud and clear. The answer is that they can’t afford it, don’t want to pay for it, and don’t understand why we would intentionally keep headed in a situation where the benefits are just going to keep costing them thousands of dollars more each year.”

2008 DEBATE

The Salary Review Commission recommended fewer legislators and higher pay in July 2008, a decision that would cost taxpayers $30,000 more a year.

The commission made two recommendations: The first recommendation had three parts: The first was that there would be no grandfathering of existing salaries or benefits based on longevity of service or current status; the second was regarding health insurance; the third increased legislator salaries from $9,000 to $10,000.

The second recommendation by the committee in 2008 suggested a reduction in the legislature, from 25 to 17 members. Additionally, the recommendation included health insurance changes. It also would increase legislator salaries from $9,000 to $15,000 if the number of legislators was decreased.

Mike Lyons, 2008 Salary Review Commission chairman, asked legislators to adopt “all or nothing” when it came to the recommendations.

“If you select one without the others, it takes away from what we are doing,” Lyons had said. “You should look at all three parts.”

Legislators voted down the commission’s changes, later voting to eliminate health insurance for legislators with no other changes due to budgetary reasons. At the same time, the commission also recommended increasing the county executive’s salary from $85,000 to $95,000; the clerk’s salary from $53,000 to $65,000; and the sheriff from $82,500 to $87,500, all beginning in 2010. Once again, the Salary Review Commission’s recommendations were not met favorably by legislators.

“(In 2008, the recommendations) were voted down, quite strongly if I recall,” Legislative Chairman Jay Gould, R-Ashville, recently told the OBSERVER.

FIVE YEARS LATER

A Salary Review Commission was pulled together once again this year for salary recommendations. Earlier this month, it delivered.

The Salary Review Committee recommended that, as of Jan. 1, 2014, base salary for legislators increase from $9,000 to $12,000 per year, as the number of legislators will be decreasing from 25 to 17. It also recommended the chairman of the legislature receive an additional $8,000; majority and minority leaders an additional $1,000; assistant majority and minority leaders an additional $500; each committee chairman an additional $1,000; and each ranking member of committees an additional $250.

For the county executive position, the committee recommended an annual salary of $109,480 effective Jan. 1, 2014.

The committee recommended that the county clerk position salary be $68,264, beginning Jan. 1, 2014.

The committee also recommended an increase for the position of county sheriff. In 2011, Sheriff Joseph Gerace received a salary of $83,740, according to seethroughny.net. Beginning Jan. 1, 2014, the Salary Review Committee recommended a salary of $87,450.

This past week, the Administrative Services Committee and the Audit and Control Committee each reviewed the recommendations. As in 2008, the Audit and Control Committee voted down each of the proposals. The Administrative Services Committee voted down the salary increases to the sheriff and legislators, but made recommendations to change the county executive salary to $100,000 and the county clerk salary to $62,000.

“It’s hard for an elected position, for you to vote for yourself a raise, I understand that,” Keefe said to the Administrative Services Committee last week. “You have given up health insurance, you’ve given up laptop computers, you’ve given up expense accounts. There’s a number of things you’ve given up over the years, and your salary has remained the same. It wasn’t based on emotions, it wasn’t based on politics. The only thing that we based it on was, ‘What has life done for the average person over 23 years?'”

Bob Scudder, R-Fredonia, and John Runkle, R-Stockton, made it clear they did not support any of the increases, each speaking to their respective committees about how now is not the time to give drastic raises. Other legislators echoed their thoughts, while at the same time supporting increases to the county executive and clerk.

“There’s not been a change in the salary of county executive or county clerk in 20 years,” said Mark Tarbrake, R-Ellicott. “I support that change for those people. Let’s move into the 21st century for those people, let’s get real here. As far as county legislators go, I’m willing to keep those the same.”

Additionally, David Himelein, R-Findley Lake, suggested looking at the salaries more often.

“This whole system where you look at it every five years and give somebody a raise that hasn’t even been in office before, that doesn’t even know what the job totally entails, and they’re going to get a 20 percent raise, I think is not very wise,” Himelein said. “Maybe we should restructure how we go about paying our elected officials, and have it on a cost-of-living basis, or some other basis, rather than waiting every five years and having to give great big salary increases.”

The full legislature will review the local laws Wednesday at its regular meeting. During this time, legislators have the ability to recommend changes to the local laws, which will then need to wait 30 days before the changes may be voted upon. If no changes are made, the decisions of the legislators immediately take effect.

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