County salaries

According to tradition dictated by the Colorado Constitution, the state Legislature sets the salary scale for elected county officials, and while that conceivably protects against those officials brokering too-cozy raise agreements, it fundamentally creates an awkward situation wherein county pay scales are subject to state politics. A bill in the Legislature would ask voters to hand the salary-setting power back to counties. It is a sensible move.

The Legislature considered a measure earlier this session that would have given county elected officials an across-the-board raise. Commissioners, sheriffs, coroners, treasurers, assessors, surveyors and county clerks would all have benefitted from such a boost, and given the growing number of duties some of those officials face – clerks in particular, who must midwife new election rules into practical application – offering appropriate compensation is critical. It has been eight years since the Legislature last extended such a raise, and this year’s measure fizzled, too. That is in large part because of the upcoming fall election, wherein legislators seeking another term would be on the hook for their vote. Better safe than sorry, from an election-year politics perspective, but county officials are hamstrung in the offing. County residents, in turn, could find themselves being served by lesser-shining stars than fair compensation would attract – particularly when those who are working under elected officials can, and sometimes do make more than their bosses. With this disincentive, the best and brightest might choose not to rise to counties’ highest offices.

The constriction cuts both ways, too. Because the county salary schedule is carved in legislative stone, there is no room for efficiencies or reduction in salaries where they might be superfluous. While the salaries are tiered according to county size and population, there are enough sparsely populated counties in Colorado to assume that some coroners, for instance, are not working overtime for their pay.

Allowing the flexibility for counties to set their own salaries – with safeguards, of course, to ensure that commissioners could not vote themselves gigantic raises but would have to earn them after their next re-election – seems an appropriate solution to the awkwardness that the status quo engenders. As it is now, commissioners, whose job it is to safeguard county coffers, are required to pay themselves whatever the Legislature tells them to. That may or may not mesh with the dollars in the bank. Bringing the power to counties would allow for more complete fiscal management and locally derived salaries that are appropriate to the community in question.

It would also divorce the conversation from the legislative election cycle. Every two years, lawmakers become averse to anything that might get them in trouble with voters. Spending money on the wrong thing – whatever that might be – is often a sure way to do that. County officials deserve better, as do the communities they serve. The Legislature should advance the measure asking voters to give counties the right to set their own pay scales for elected officials. That would keep the conversation where it belongs: at the local level over how local officials are meeting local needs.

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