Our View: Upside-down salaries
April 15, 2014
Disentangling the knotted rope that is Colorado's set of rules for increasing the salaries of elected officials isn't easy. If it were, the state Legislature would have long since approved a pay increase for the governor, state treasurer and attorney general, positions that haven't seen pay raises since 1999. And Routt County may have already been able to ensure the salaries of its elected officials aren't lower than their own employees in some cases.
The Denver Post reported in March 2013 that state Attorney General John Suthers earns $80,000 per year, and Secretary of State Scott Gessler earns $68,500. They are among the elected officials in Colorado who make substantially less than their counterparts in neighboring states.
It's a similar situation for elected officials in Routt County who make far less on average than non-elected county department heads, and in some cases, less than the top employees in their own departments. The Routt County commissioners, who earn $58,500 annually, voted last week to ask the state Legislature, under the state constitution, to pass a bill that would restore balance to the pay structure in Routt County, and we approve.
It's appropriate that elected officials in Colorado are effectively barred from increasing their own salaries; their compensation cannot be increased in mid-term, and a pay raise requires an act of the Legislature. But the process has become a political football in the Centennial State.
In Routt County, retiring County Clerk Kay Weinland and County Assessor Gary Peterson also make $58,500, the same as the county commissioners. But both of those elected officials are making less than a few of their employees. That's an undesirable situation that creates a strong disincentive for the most qualified candidates to run for county office in the future.
Peterson observed this month that if a position opened in his department, he could realize a significant raise by resigning and applying for the job.
Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins makes $76,000, and would earn $87,700 if Routt County's classification were upgraded. That salary still would be less than any of non-elected department heads, who average more than $100,000 annually, and in most cases, supervise fewer employees and smaller budgets.
That's part of the reason we approve of the vote taken by the three commissioners last week to prevail upon Colorado's legislative leaders to take up a late bill before this session ends May 7, to elevate Routt County from a Class 3 county to a Class 2 county. That step would open the door for future salary raises for the sheriff, the county clerk, assessor, treasurer, coroner and surveyor.
Earlier this legislative session, a more timely bill to change Routt County's salary classification was in the works until legislators from other parts of the state attached the issue of increased compensation for state elected officials to it. It quickly bogged down in the face of politics.
Should the Legislature prove unable to meet the deadline or unwilling to pass the law, those county officials, who saw their last pay raise in 2007, wouldn't see another before 2019.
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.
We think that by 2019, the current situation, in which two of the county assessor's employees already earn more than he does, will have become untenable. The county commissioners took the right path when they asked the state Legislature to approve a late bill that would allow Routt to offer its elected officials salaries that are commensurate with Colorado counties like Summit, Eagle, La Plata, Pitkin, Garfield — all counties that are either home to major tourism destinations or house the people who work at nearby resorts.