Typically, the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors’ discussion of salary increases for the county’s elected officials goes a few more rounds than it did this year. But that doesn’t mean the system is working.
This past week, the supervisors agreed to raises for the sheriff, county attorney, auditor, recorder, treasurer and themselves for the next fiscal year — but only after they were decreased by 35% from those recommended by the County Compensation Board. The decision was reached without the back and forth that has been part of the process in recent years.
This time, the sheriff will get a 6.5% increase, the supervisors will receive just under 1% and the other positions each will get 5.2% more. Additionally, 27 other county employees (such as sheriff’s department deputies) have salaries tied to those increases which will increase by the same increment.
Those are pretty significant increases at a time when the county has had millions of dollars of pandemic-related expenses arise. Yet the recommendation of the compensation board was much higher: 10% for sheriff, 1.5% for supervisors and 8% for the others. That’s why for at least the eighth consecutive year, county supervisors reduced the pay raises suggested by the compensation board.
Why would the compensation board ask for such hefty raises in the middle of a pandemic when county government has been taxed with so many new expenditures? Because, comp board members say, that is what they are statutorily required to do.
Members of the compensation board are citizen volunteers, each chosen by an elected official to advocate on behalf of that official. That’s it.
Those folks make up the entire board. Everyone is advocating for a bigger salary for someone.
There is no taxpayer representative on the board. There is no disinterested party to weigh other factors. Under state code, the compensation board is a collection of people advocating in the name of elected officials.
Further, the way those advocates determine their recommended raises is by examining a fairly simple set of criteria.
1) Where does the county rank by population? (Dubuque County is eighth currently.)
2) Where does each elected official rank compared with peers in other counties?
And that’s it. No consideration of an individual’s longevity in the position, the geographic location of the county or the number of employees under their supervision, and no comparisons to similar positions in the private sector. And especially pertinent now, no weight is given to the current economic climate.
What has happened, as a result, is that the compensation board comes back recommending significant raises for most positions. This year’s requests were modest compared to the 15% increase requested for the sheriff in fiscal 2020. The requests are based solely on how the salaries compare with other counties.
Step 2 of the process is that the recommendations go to the supervisors, who typically say the raises are way too high and knock them down considerably.
While county elected officials deserve competitive salaries, there should be more to consider than this simple application. Does the county auditor, who has been serving in the position for a month, need a 5.2% increase over what his predecessor, a veteran of more than 30 years, had been making?
Surely, there must be other apt comparisons beyond just other counties.
State code states that compensation boards “shall review the compensation paid to comparable officers in other counties of this state, other states, private enterprise and the federal government.” So, in fact, the compensation board can consider facts beyond the salaries of similar positions in other Iowa counties.
The same part of the code references both “salary” and “compensation” — which could include vacation, health insurance and other benefits. Yet Dubuque County’s compensation board looks strictly at salary, believing that was the law’s intent. Lawmakers should clarify this language, amending the law to remove any question and allow boards to consider everything as compensation, not just wages.
County elected officials deserve fair and competitive compensation. But the current arrangement is a poor system toward achieving that goal.