A board tasked with recommending salary increases for elected Dubuque County officials proposed a 12% pay hike for the sheriff, as well as 6% raises for three other officials.
The Dubuque County Compensation Board met this week to discuss pay rates for officials in fiscal year 2021, which will begin July 1. The board is made up of representatives picked by the county sheriff, auditor, treasurer, recorder and supervisors.
For the second consecutive year, board members recommended a pay hike of more than 10% for the sheriff. And for the second year, the county supervisors — who ultimately sign off on any wage increases — say the results are disappointing.
“I thought that we had an understanding after last year when they came back with an actually reasonable recommendation,” said Supervisor Dave Baker. “I’m very disappointed in (this) recommendation.”
Compensation members also recommended a 6% bump for the county auditor, recorder and treasurer, and a 2.8% increase for the three county supervisors.
In 2018, compensation board members recommended a 14.9% hike for the sheriff and an 8.5% raise for the county attorney. But at the request of the supervisors, they lowered those proposed raises to 5% for all elected officials except the supervisors, who received 3% salary increases.
The compensation board is tasked by the state to convene each year to recommend any raises they think befit the officials. Members are appointed to four-year terms by elected officials.
By law, they can consider the county’s population ranking and cost-of-living trends in making recommendations. Board Vice Chairman Joe Link, who represents Auditor Denise Dolan, said that is the information they used to come to their figures.
“There is not any better comparability for the elected officials in the state of Iowa than their peers — auditor to auditor, sheriff to sheriff — in each of the 99 counties,” he said.
According to information the board used, Dubuque County has the state’s eighth-highest population at 97,041 people.
But the salaries for Dolan, County Attorney C.J. May and Treasurer Eric Stierman are ranked 10th. The recorder’s salary is ranked No. 9 in the state, while the sheriff is paid the 11th-most.
“Those officials in all of the counties are charged with the same duties,” Link said.
Ken Runde, a former Dubuque County sheriff, was a first-time advocate for Sheriff Joe Kennedy on the compensation board.
“We’re the eighth-largest county in the state,” he said. “The sheriff is the 11th-highest paid in the state. They have now fallen behind where they should be throughout the state. It’s only fair that they get them up to something close.”
Runde said that is especially crucial now, given the continued changes in law enforcement.
“It is totally different,” he said. “They need to be prepared for that mentally and physically. For that, they need to be compensated appropriately.”
County Supervisor Ann McDonough said she understands where the compensation board is coming from.
“The sheriff’s pay is not comparable to counties with similar populations,” she said. “But I can’t tell my community that a 12% increase was fair.”
According to both Baker and McDonough, one problem is that a 12% hike wouldn’t impact just the sheriff’s wages. Administrative deputies under the sheriff have formed a bargaining unit that ties their salaries to that of the elected official.
For example, a chief deputy in the department must make 85% of what the sheriff does. A captain makes 82%.
Kennedy said 15 people have salaries tied to his. So, if he gets a 12% raise, the county is on the hook for a substantial payroll increase.
Link has been on the compensation board for more than eight years. He said a big part of the problem was that for several years in a row, the county froze salaries.
Runde was sheriff at the time and said they predicted then that pay would never catch up. As Dubuque County’s pay plateaued, other counties’ pay increased exponentially, Link said.
In any case, Baker said, he plans to ask the board to reconvene again this year.
“I’m hoping that they’re willing to take another look at that similar to last year,” he said. “I can’t support increasing wages by 12% and won’t.”
McDonough said it was not necessary for the board to reconvene, but that they likely wouldn’t get what they recommended.
County Human Resources Administrator Dawn Sherman said that, according to state code, if the supervisors increase the pay below what was recommended, they must do so “in equal percentage.”
“So, if they want to reduce the sheriff’s 12% by half, they have to take the other officials’ 6% down to 3%,” she said.
Baker said that is what makes the board’s staggered recommendation “troubling.”
First-year compensation Board Member Tom Townsend, who represents Recorder John Murphy, said board members were unhappy they had to reconvene last year and would be upset if asked to do so again this year.
However, the board will work with supervisors to find a solution.
“Some of the longtime people on the board were pretty unhappy that it happened the way they did last year,” he said. “It’s our job to make the recommendation. It’s (supervisors’) job to make their decision beyond that.”