When Dubuque County supervisors squared up with Sheriff Joe Kennedy last week to talk salary increases, it couldn’t have been an easy discussion.
After all, as Kennedy noted, this has been a tough year to be a member of law enforcement, and members of the county sheriff’s department continued to serve on the front lines amid a pandemic.
But holding elective office means having difficult conversations sometimes, particularly when it involves taxpayer money. The issue pressed by Supervisors Jay Wickham and Ann McDonough was a discussion that needed to happen, whether or not other elected officials agree.
Earlier this year, county supervisors voted to increase the sheriff’s salary by 3% and the salaries of the county auditor, attorney, recorder and treasurer by 1.5%. That decision followed some contentious back and forth with the county compensation board — which has become an annual argument — whose members called for larger raises.
Then, March came roaring in and the whole world changed. McDonough and Wickham are now wondering if the county should rethink giving any raises at all, under the circumstances.
That’s a wholly sensible consideration.
Too often, public bodies do not emulate the ebb and flow of the communities around them. Ask almost any business in the county right now, and no one will tell you it’s business as usual.
In a matter of weeks, unemployment in the county shot up by double digits. From mid-March through mid-June, more than 13,300 new unemployment claims were filed within Dubuque County. About 6,000 people in the county still were receiving unemployment benefits last week. Claims filed in the month of April alone exceeded those filed in all of 2019. The loss of nearly 9,000 jobs in the county represents about 16 years of growth.
These are highly unusual times. As government reacts to shore up its own revenue shortfalls, officials might have to take the highly unusual step of postponing increases. That kind of discussion already has happened in corporate boardrooms and business offices throughout our community.
County Auditor Denise Dolan was critical of the supervisors bringing up the issue of postponing salary increases when the county had been “throwing money ... towards expenses for COVID(-19).”
County supervisors have been marshaling resources to fight the virus for three months now, not just throwing around money. They have increased testing in Dubuque County, provided help for struggling businesses and been at the forefront with the local health team communicating with the public about the pandemic.
Yes, the supervisors — like every public entity — must be transparent and accountable for every dollar of county money spent. But spending related to public health in a pandemic is a responsibility of government.
No one is suggesting county officials are not worthy of salary increases. This move is about the pandemic, not performance.
Local government — cities as well as counties — should consider postponing pay increases in light of this economic and health crisis.