As discussions over double-digit salary increases for a handful of Scott County’s elected officials were underway, Compensation Board member Tom Otting drew on his 31-year career in banking to offer a piece of advice.
“If you want to borrow $100,000, you ask for $200,000,” the now-retired Otting, also a former Scott County Supervisor 18 years ago, said. “And hope that they would lend you the $100,000.”
That strategy appeared to play out on Thursday for some commissioners as the panel recommended 15 percent salary increases for auditor, recorder, attorney, and treasurer. They also approved a 20 percent raise for the sheriff and suggested county supervisors get 2 percent.
The Compensation Board’s chief responsibility is to make recommendations for salary increases of elected officials, a process that’s done annually. Next, the commission’s recommendation goes to the Scott County Board of Supervisors for consideration during the county’s annual budget-forming process, which is scheduled to begin next month.
Under state law, supervisors can lower the suggested salary amounts or accept them as-is — they cannot make increases. But if decreases are made, they are tied proportionally to the commission’s other salary recommendations.
At the close of their meeting Thursday, commissioners said they made the recommendations as a goal to make elected official salaries more comparable to similar communities. But they also acknowledged the board could likely make changes to the recommendation.
Other rules also keep the commission’s recommendations from being too cut and dry. In the case of the county attorney, for example, state law prohibits receiving a higher salary than district court judges. Because the county attorney’s compensation is already capped at that level, the salary increase for that position would likely only go up as far as the state allows for judges if raises are approved in Des Moines.
The recommendations from the commission come in response to data provided by several county officials that show Scott County’s elected officers well behind other comparable ones across the state in terms of gross pay alone. Considering the county’s ranking as the third-most-populous in the state, the elected officials all make substantially less than those in Johnson County, which is home to about 23,000 fewer residents.
The elected officials’ salaries represent a relatively small part of the county’s budget, which amounted to roughly $84 million last year. For example, the county auditor currently makes $88,300, meaning a 15 percent increase would amount to roughly $101,500 annually.
Some board members described the raises as long overdue, pointing to a need to make the salaries more enticing to keep good candidates in running for the positions.
“I think that in the seven years I’ve been on the board, we have just kicked the can down the road and given minimal increases when we have asked these officers to bite the bullet, hold their budgets, cut their budgets," said board member Cindy Schalk. "In tough times they’ve done that. We’re not in tough times now in Scott County … and we can afford to pay these officers more.”
Others initially disagreed with that approach.
“I didn’t necessarily get the opinion that we were swimming in financial health” in Scott County, said Commission Chairman Steve Sorensen, adding that some of the proposed rate increases seemed “like a big jump.”
Mike Duffy, the other commissioner who was appointed by the board of supervisors, suggested elected officials “always have the option of not running again too if the job’s not paying enough.”
“They don’t have to run for office,” he added, later saying that they could “take some heat” if they receive raises much larger than that of the hourly employees they oversee.