Elected officials see cost of living increase

| June 23, 2020 8:28 AM

The county compensation board voted 5-1 to recommend a 2.5 percent cost of living pay increase for local elected officials June 17.

Officials opted for the increase in an effort to avoid future spikes in compensation — as occurred the year prior — and give the sheriff’s office flexibility to grant deputies a cost of living increase. County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) cast the sole dissenting vote.

The average base salary for an elected official in Lincoln County amounts to about $56,000 a year. That’s in line with the roughly comparable, population-wise, Silver Bow and Park counties and slightly behind Lake County.

The 2.5 cost of living increase for each elected official and the county’s 20 deputies represents a roughly $1,400 boost to each individual. The total cost to the county’s coffers is $40,600.

County Administrator Patrick McFadden lobbied the committee, which includes the commissioners, to steadily increase wages to meet inflation in the coming years.

In the past, the committee has applied a hodge-podge approach to cost of living pay increases. Elected officials received small wage bumps in 2010, 2012 and 2016 with a larger jump in 2018. They received no increases in 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015 or 2017.

In 2019, the committee voted to give elected officials a 20 percent bump. But even that jump, still controversial within the community, brought pay in line with inflation, McFadden said.

“I’m sure you didn’t plan this out for 10 years, but in the end you backed into the bracket where you needed to be with that 20 percent increase,” he said. “It brought the average up to where it should have been over the last 10 years.”

Still, public perception of the pay increase weighed on several committee members. Peck opened the meeting by offering an explanation for the decision. It was done, he said, in order to give pay increases to sheriff’s deputies.

“Just to segue into it, last year was the infamous 20 percent pay raise. It keeps coming up,” Peck said. “I want to clarify that it’s not something the county commissioners asked for.”

Deputies’ cost of living increases are tied to the sheriff’s compensation, Peck said. In order to get the deputies appropriate compensation, the sheriff’s pay needed increasing. Because his wage is set with other elected officials, they all saw a bump, Peck said.

“You can’t give the sheriff a pay raise without giving every elected official a raise,” he said. “It wasn’t ‘Hey, Jerry, let’s increase our pay.’ … It’s probably the hardest vote I’ve had to choke down since I was in office.”

Sheriff Darren Short, also in attendance, also expressed unease with the vote.

“It wasn’t comfortable for anybody,” he said.

Tricia Brooks, clerk of the court, said she felt the backlash as well.

“I think we all, as elected officials, took quite a bit of flack over that.” She said. “Even from friends and family.”

Annual increases pegged to the rate of inflation would help avoid the situation, McFadden said. Although he could understand not wanting to increase pay again this year given what happened in 2019, McFadden beseeched them to consider at least a minor bump.

“If we go back to zero again then we start that yo-yo cycle again,” he said. “If you think it needs to be lower than 2.5 percent then I still recommend you give yourself a modest one, so [the increases will not be] going zero and then up, zero and then up, for the reasons I’ve mentioned before.”

Short backed the concept of annual increases.

“The yo-yo thing was a disaster,” he said. “That’s what made everybody come down on us so hard last year. Maintaining it at 2 or 2.5 percent to stay on an even keel makes sense. Would I like to get a larger increase? Of course. Everybody would. I understand the economics of this county as well and we’re just not there.”

Peck, though, said he could not vote for an increase after the previous year’s raise. When Short pointed out that his office’s deputies would not get a cost of living increase unless he did, Peck added a caveat to his reasoning, but still cast the lone vote against the proposal.

“If it came down to you guys not getting a pay raise, I’d vote for you,” he said. “Nay.”