2015 Clay County Salary Commission, Better, But Still Off the Mark

Posted: November 9, 2015 in Clay County
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I recently published a recap of the 2015 Clay County Salary Commission over on The Northland News.

It’s undeniable this salary commission was far better than the one in 2013. It happened in one setting, and all parties seemingly tried to do what they thought was right. As I wrote the news article I became frustrated with a few things. Writing often has the tendency to really make you think about something. As this audience is used to my Musings on local politics, I thought I’d express some opinion that I think needs to be heard.

The salary commission granted the offices they occupy a COLA for the next time a person occupies that office by a vote of 5-4 with one abstention:

County Clerk Megan Thompson-No

Recorder Katee Porter-No

Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte-yes

Commissioner Luann Ridgeway-yes

Commissioner Gene Owen-no

Collector Lydia McEvoy-yes

Treasurer Ted Graves-did not vote, acting as chairperson, only voted in case of tie

Auditor Carol McCaslin-yes

Public Administrator Debbie Gwinn-yes

At first I walked away not too upset about this. My initial thinking was, it’s just a COLA, no big deal.

While some could play semantics with this, this is still a raise. It’s called a cost of living adjustment, and yes the cost of living impacts us all. Having said that, the average salary of an office holder in Clay County is still almost $65,000 and the Commissioners make at least $52,000 each.

Take out the Commissioners salaries and the average goes up to $68,000. The lowest salary excluding the Commissioners is $64,887.

If you can’t live on that, you might want to consider some personal financial coaching. And frankly, I don’t want you running a government office even at the County level.

My wife and I paid off $75,000 in debt by kind-of-sort-of following the Dave Ramsey plan. We made a little more than $64,887 combined, admittedly, but I’ve heard numerous similar success stories on less money.

You can take a look at their salaries and some comparisons with similar counties on this Google Sheet here.

To quote Commissioner Nolte, “I don’t recall in my case, and I suspect none of you had someone point a gun to your head to get you to run for office.”

Bingo!

Office holder pay is a touchy subject because it lies at the confluence of our traditional concepts of representative office, and an ever growing amount of people who get into elected office and never leave. There’s often a disdain for elected officeholders in our culture. Some argue that good pay can attract high quality people to public office. I’ve wavered on this issue myself. To my knowledge, there’s no study on this topic, and it’s hard to say what is accurate.

For a social security recipient who has nothing more than social security, a cost of living adjustment makes a lot of sense.

For someone making a base of at least $64,877, plus paid health benefits, plus access to a public retirement pension, a cost of living adjustment is icing on the cake. It’s a raise, save me the semantics.

When I taught public school, I think my health care and retirement was equivalent to another $15,000 a year. I don’t know for sure, but it’s a fair stretch to say the value of the benefits for our county officials probably are not too far off that number.

Benefits are a form of compensation because they are derived from money. In this case, they’re derived from tax monies confiscated from the citizens of Clay County. And to this Commission’s credit they recently voted to somewhat lower property taxes in the county.

On the other side of the coin, I do remember some concern being expressed about all the money we recently lost due to the DSSF funding (if you’re not familiar with this, you should be). I’ve heard other concerns expressed about possible expenses in the coming year. If you were hesitant about a tax cut, you should be hesitant about a COLA increase.

To give some comparisons to think about, in the state of Missouri, the average annual wage of all occupations is $42,790 (these people don’t often have plush public benefits), the average salary of a teacher is around $50,000, police are at $45,020, and firefighters are at $46,960.

And you really want a comparison to think about?

An active duty soldier (you know those guys you all praised recently when you ceremoniously made Clay County a Purple Heart County) with the classification of private E1 in the US Army has an average starting salary of $18,378.

The last time I checked, any elected office in Clay County is not more psychologically and physically challenging than multiple tours of duty in the Middle East. That’s of course if you remember that we’re still at war. I hope you do because a majority of the officeholders in the room all come from the political party that thought it was a great idea to destabilize the entire region by invading Iraq. Members of the other political party were anti-war up until the point they held the Presidency.

And, by the way, Commissioner Owen actually voted no on the COLA increase.

I’ve followed local politics for years here in the County, Commissioner Nolte is right, I’ve definitely never seen anyone held up at gunpoint to run for office.

I was asked recently if I thought the 2015 salary commission looked professional. I initially responded that it looked okay, and that they were trying to do the right thing.

Professional is a word that has a bit of a connotative meaning, and it’s one of those terms that has as many definitions as people that use it. For me it means did you treat others with respect, did you uphold the ethics of your field, did you follow the Golden Rule, and were you honest.

Professional is defined in the dictionary as:

  • of, relating to, or connected with a profession.
  • engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.

Upon further reflection, I’m not sure that professional is the appropriate term for the most recent salary commission. Neither is unprofessional. The more I think about it, elected office should never be viewed as a profession. Traditionally, in America, elected office was intended to be a service role. There’s supposed to be some level of sacrifice involved in that choice to serve.

It’s up to each of us to make a decision about what we think is right. I definitely want competent people in elected office, but I also don’t want people becoming wealthy off of those elected offices. I get that people still need to live and enjoy their lives, but no one’s starving in Clay County government. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that you should be able to live on the salaries currently offered to Clay County elected officials. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that those salaries are good enough to attract sufficiently competent elected officials.

This wasn’t meant to be an attack on the current elected office holders. But, I can say I’m not supportive of the action that was taken. It’s my hope that future salary commissions contemplate those they serve and bear in mind Commissioner Nolte’s words, no one held a gun to your head to be there.

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