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Commissioners ponder pay increases for county officials

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | June 8, 2021 7:00 AM

Lincoln County authorities voiced their support for a 1.8 percent boost in salaries for elected and appointed officials for the coming year.

Patrick McFadden, county administrator, told members of the county compensation board that the increase would help the county stay ahead of inflation. Speaking during the June 2 meeting, McFadden said that the figure might seem low given recent fluctuations in the market but noted that it represented an average over the last year.

With 108 employees, the county would take on an additional $86,832 in yearly wages with the 1.8 percent increase. A 1.8 bump in elected official salaries would cost the county another $30,441, according to McFadden.

The average base salary of a county employee is $44,678. Elected officials make a base salary of $57,525. According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, the yearly per capita income of the county was around $25,081 in 2019.

To give context to the 1.8 percent increase, McFadden compared it to cost of living increases offered by other Montana counties last year. A survey of 45 counties found that the average bump in wages was 1.91 percent. Lincoln County was slightly above the curve with a 2.5 percent cost of living increase last year.

McFadden noted it could be difficult to compare different counties directly as size, revenues and land appropriations can vary significantly across the state.

Looking at Lincoln County’s recent cost of living increases, McFadden said the 1.8 bump next year would bring wages right up to the 10-year inflation average of 2.3 percent.

For most of the last decade, the county lagged behind the curve. During five of the years, employees did not see any increases in their wages. To make up for the deficit, the county offered significant bumps of 7.5 percent and 8.0 percent in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

“We played catch up here … across some lean years and then boom we caught everyone up,” McFadden said.

Moving forward, McFadden advocated for more gentle adjustments in cost of living increases on a year-to-year basis.

Next year, the county expects to see a 20.4 percent decrease in worker’s compensation insurance, which could help offset the wage bump. McFadden said the dip in insurance translated to a $36,915 savings for the county.

County officials also expect to see between a 12 and 15 percent increase in tax revenues due to increases in real estate and housing prices. McFadden said it was hard to tell what the exact increase would be at the time since the county’s budget cycle does not match up the state cycle.

“We don’t have the numbers before we have to make the decision. … We have to kind of guesstimate what is going to happen,” he said.

Going off a 14 percent increase in tax revenue, the county officials could expect to see another roughly $560,000 flow into their coffers.

To formalize the bump in elected official salaries, McFadden said county commissioners would vote on a resolution at an upcoming meeting.