Rob Douglas: It’s time to set county salaries locally
May 1, 2014
As reported this week by the Steamboat Today, the Colorado Legislature is considering a resolution that could eventually remove legal authority for determining the salaries of elected county officials from the Legislature and transfer it to each county's board of commissioners.
That's a change Coloradans should support and encourage.
According to the article, "A Senate resolution now being considered would ask voters to amend the state constitution to allow counties to establish their own salaries for elected county officials. It would direct the general assembly to mandate the creation of citizens' commissions in each county for the purpose of evaluating the salaries of elected county officers biennially and making recommendations to the county commissioners. In addition to county commissioners, clerks and sheriffs, it would include treasurers, assessors, coroners and surveyors."
As drafted, the preamble to the resolution provides the following points as rationale for the potential constitutional amendment.
• The salary amounts of county officers are infrequently modified and are often insufficient compensation for the work performed by those officers.
• Inadequate compensation is unfair and is a deterrent to those who would otherwise seek to serve as county officials.
• The categorical approach currently mandated disregards the individual characteristics of counties, including economic conditions, and other relevant factors.
• The unique characteristics of Colorado’s counties make county officer compensation a matter best suited to local, not state, control.
In an email provided to the Steamboat Today by Routt County Commission Chairman Tim Corrigan, Teak J. Simonton, the chairwoman of the State Salary Commission, outlined several additional aspects of the resolution, including:
• "Increases for each type of elected position would be different, but in all cases, the flexibility would be completely controlled within each county."
• "The process by which salaries would be set would include a recommendation from a bi-partisan citizens' commission in each county."
• "Each county could develop a transparent approach involving the citizenry in open public meetings."
• "Economically strapped counties would not be required to make any salary increases at all."
It's also important to note that the resolution in support of the constitutional amendment prohibits county commissioners from altering their own compensation for the term they are currently fulfilling.
In sum, short of establishing the salaries of elected county officers by a majority vote of the county electorate, the resolution provides the most control to local residents possible. And while amendments to the state constitution should be closely scrutinized to ensure they clear a high threshold of demonstrable need, it's hard to find enough fault within the resolution to warrant it being derailed by the Legislature.
Arguably, the resolution makes perfect sense.
Given the specific circumstances and demands that may be present in one county but not another, the residents of each county are far better positioned to evaluate and influence the appropriate compensation for their county officers than is the state Legislature. Plus, if control over salaries moves to the local level, residents will be more likely to examine the job requirements of their elected representatives.
For example, here in Routt County, the mandated citizens' commission might find that the job demands of the sheriff, treasurer and other officials responsible for the day to day operation of the county necessitate additional compensation, while determining that the office of county commissioner — currently paid approximately six times more than members of the Steamboat Springs City Council for similar policy making responsibilities — is ill-suited for additional compensation.
Additionally, given the reality of politics at the state level, local control will allow for more timely and nimble adjustment of salaries — something that is completely absent under the current system. Unfortunately, the current political reality under the Capitol dome in Denver also makes for slim odds that the resolution will pass so that the proposed constitutional amendment appears on the ballot this fall.
That would be tragic, as it's time to set county salaries locally.
To reach Rob Douglas, email rdouglas@SteamboatToday.com