County and salaries

For many good reasons and perhaps some that are questionable, salaries for elected county officials in Colorado are set by state statute. Under the system, county commissioners, coroners, assessors, sheriffs, clerks, surveyors and treasurers adhere to a uniform pay structure, so that counties are told what to pay their elected officials based on which of five categories classifies it. That equalizing rule ensures that counties neither overpay nor skimp on their elected officials and takes local politics out of the salary equation. But when the pay schedule comes up for review at the state level, county officials nevertheless are involved.

A salary commission comprising county officials from across Colorado has recommended a 20 percent pay increase for elected county office-holders, and while the raise may well have merit, county commissioners – in La Plata County and elsewhere – are in a somewhat awkward position with respect to weighing in on the proposal, which the Colorado Legislature will take up this session. As guardians of the county coffers, commissioners must make difficult decisions about how to allocate funds across a spectrum of demands that exceeds the fiscal supply. Adding a pay increase to that equation further complicates both the budgeting process and the associated politics.

La Plata County commissioners, who earn $72,500 annually, approved a budget in December that has no pay increases – merit or cost-of-living – for the county’s employees. That position reflects how tight the county’s finances are, as well as commissioners’ commitment to fiscal responsibility. That commitment is rightly reflected in the board’s neutrality on the pay-increase proposal.

“It would be inconsistent to approve that budget and then support this bill,” Commissioner Bobby Lieb said. He is correct, but the board’s hesitance to weigh in does not mean the raises are inappropriate.

La Plata County Clerk and Recorder Tiffany Parker urged commissioners to support the proposal, arguing – correctly – that she and her cohorts across Colorado are seeing an increased workload each year. That has resulted from changing election laws, among other shifts, and clerks should be compensated appropriately for their efforts. Under the plan, the clerk’s salary would increase from $72,500 to $87,000.

Sheriff Duke Schirard had a less compelling argument for supporting the bill. Schirard, who earns $87,700 annually, said, “I’d like to put a little away for my retirement.” While that is a wholly understandable point of view, it is not one that should necessarily influence the county’s position on the pay proposal, which would affect office-holders elected in November.

Instead, commissioners must consider – as they did – the implications for the county budget. In this case, the increases would add $128,722 to expenditures between 2015 and 2017. That is not insignificant and would require some balancing and restructuring.

Elected officials should be paid fairly for what too often is a thankless job. La Plata County’s office-holders are an eminently competent group of decision-makers who take their commitment to the public trust seriously. They deserve adequate compensation, but the county commissioners – demonstrating their concern for the public trust they hold – are right to remain neutral on a state plan to increase county salaries.

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