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2.7 percent COLA recommended for county elected officials

| June 24, 2005 12:00 AM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Reporter

A committee charged with reviewing salaries for Lincoln County's elected officials has approved a 2.7-percent cost of living allowance along with a 1-percent longevity increase for the 2005-2006 fiscal year.

The committee, which includes the three county commissioners, the treasurer, the clerk and recorder, the sheriff and the county attorney along with citizen representatives Alvin Benitz of Libby and Darren Caldwell of Troy, voted to approve the package on Tuesday. The committee also approved an insurance plan that includes an increased deductible to help cover rising costs.

Under the proposal approved by the committee, the base salary for the commissioners, clerk and recorder, clerk of court, sheriff and Libby district justice of the peace will increase from $35,101.17 to $36,048.90. The county attorney's base salary will increase from $35,678.81 to $36,642.14, the base salary for the Eureka justice of the peace and the county superintendent of schools will climb from $17,550.59 to $18,024.45 and the county coroner's base salary will go from $6,826.48 to $7,010.79.

The longevity allowance was instituted by the committee last year, when officials received increases representing their total number of years on the job. This year's increase represents 1 percent of their base salaries.

Facing a 22-percent increase in insurance costs, the committee gave its approval to a plan to cut costs by increasing the deductible from $1,000 to $2,000 for individuals and from $2,000 to $4,000 for families and changing prescription co-payments from a flat rate of $6 for generics and $13 for name brands to 20 percent for generics and 40 percent for name brands.

Insurance costs were set to rise $157,206, from $714,574 to $871,780. Increasing the deductible cut the increase by $78,460, and changing the prescription co-payment cut another $34,871 from the increase. Eliminating prescription benefits entirely would have cut $69,742, but employees were strongly against that change, Commissioner Rita Windom said. A study indicated that more than 80 percent of employees don't meet their deductible in a year, so increasing the deductible was determined to have the least impact, said Bill Bischoff, executive assistant to the commissioners.

Benitz voted for the package but said he has reservations. The combination of a cost-of-living allowance, longevity increase and insurance benefits is raising concerns among some people in the community at a time when the local economy is "still in a state of flux," Benitz said.

"Some of my logger friends are just questioning it, and I just wanted to voice that," Benitz said.

It's important to note that salaries are paid out of the general fund, which is fueled entirely by revenues other than property taxes, Commissioner Marianne Roose said.

"The folks that talk to me, the bottom line is 'what's it going to cost me on my taxes,'" she said.

Roose also pointed out that while the committee's vote is not binding on employees other than elected officials, those employees are likely to receive a similar salary package.

"I believe very strongly that whatever is given to elected officials as a COLA should be passed along to the employees," she said.