Steamboat Springs The Routt County Board of Commissioners agreed Tuesday to a request from four other elected officials here to make a plea to the state Legislature to consider a late bill that would pave the way for their first pay increase since 2007. But the commissioners will have to hustle to beat the May 7 end of the legislative session.
“I would support the commissioners sending a letter to the speaker of the House and Senate chairman our state senator and state representative, asking for consideration of a late bill,” Commissioner Doug Monger said.
If it came to pass, the bill also would raise the $58,500 annual pay of the county commissioners to $72,500 at the beginning of new terms.
The four elected officials who came before the commissioners Tuesday afternoon included Sheriff Garrett Wiggins, Assessor Gary Peterson, Coroner Rob Ryg and Treasurer/Trustee Brita Horn. Kim Bonner, an employee in the county clerk’s office who is running to replace retiring Clerk Kay Weinland, also was in attendance.
Those elected officials pointed out that their last cost-of-living increase was awarded seven years ago, and because the state constitution prohibits them from getting a pay raise in the midst of their terms, they face the possibility of not seeing another raise until 2019 if their 11th-hour push does not succeed. What makes their circumstances more difficult to accept, they say, is that in some cases their chief lieutenants and even the third ranking person in the office, makes more than they do.
“Twenty percent of my staff earns more than I do and if their step raises continue, it will be three out of 10 next year,” Peterson said.
Peterson said he works 45 to 50 hours per week and typically works three to five hours during the weekend to keep up.
He added that a bill in the Legislature that might have upgraded pay for elected officials here was highjacked when it was attached to salary raises for state officials, an effort that failed.
Correcting what appears to be an imbalance in salaries at the county level isn’t as simple as voting at the local level to make things right.
County Attorney John Merrill told the commissioners in 2011 during a similar initiative that the law requires the Legislature to appoint a commission (including two county commissioners from across the state) to review the salaries of officials biannually to ensure they are equitable.
In order for the pay of elected officials in Routt to be increased, Legislature would have to agree to move Routt County upward in a state system that categorizes counties by their population, total assessed valuation and population growth, to determine salary levels for elected officials.
Wiggins said Tuesday that state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, and state Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, have both said they are on board with a bill that would reclassify Routt County. The task now is to persuade Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, to push a late bill through the Legislature.
Routt currently is among 20 Category 3 counties along with Rio Blanco, San Miguel, Grand, Gunnison, Montrose and Moffat among others.
Just ahead of Routt, in Category 2, where elected county officials earn higher salaries, are counties such as Fremont Mesa, Summit, La Plata, Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield.
County commissioners, county clerks and assessors in Category 2 counties earn $72,500 compared to the $58,500 in Category 3. Sheriffs earn $87,700 instead of $76,000.
Adding to the consternation is the fact that the typical department head in Routt County makes more than elected officials, averaging more than $100,000, while Wiggins, who supervises a staff of 50 and is constantly on call, is limited by law to an annual salary of $76,000.
Merrill and Finance Director Dan Strnad each make $111,948 annually, according to a worksheet Peterson supplied to the commissioners.
Commissioner Steve Ivancie said he is concerned that if the salaries of elected officials like Wiggins and Peterson become more out of balance with those of their senior employees, it will discourage some of the most qualified candidates from running to replace them, interfering with the natural order of succession.
“In this room we represent both political parties,” Ivancie said. “This is not a partisan issue. It’s about fair compensation. I’m about the people that come after us and attracting good, quality people.”
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1