Salaries still see scrutiny

The issue of Jackson County Board of Commissioners pay generated headlines when commissioners gave themselves a 26 percent raise, boosting their annual salaries to $86,341.

Commissioners C.W. Smith and Dave Gilmour announced in July that they would not take the pay raise, but would continue to draw their $68,432 salaries. Commissioner Jack Walker is taking the raise.

That controversy has simmered down, but the question remains why commissioners in Jackson County and many other Oregon counties should be paid tens of thousands of dollars while rural communities struggle to cope with a loss of federal funding.

Oregon counties once received about $238 million per year to offset lost timber revenues from federal lands following logging cutbacks. Federal payments are dwindling, with no guarantee of any funding for the future.

In contrast to the pay given to county commissioners, most city councilors and mayors earn little or nothing for their service.

The disparity in pay between county commissioners and city councilors dates far back in Oregon's history, but is still felt today.

One commissioner in neighboring Josephine County &

which slashed sheriff's patrols and shuttered libraries &

thinks cutting commissioners' pay in half and having them work part-time would help save money.

A group of residents in cash-strapped Curry County is going even further and trying to move to an all-volunteer commission.

Inequality early on

Don Laws, professor emeritus of political science at Southern Oregon University and a former Ashland city councilor, said that early in Oregon's history, county commissioners were essentially full-time employees in charge of managing county operations. County government was more complex than city government.

City councilors were supposed to have part-time duties and generally served as volunteers, he said.

The pattern of commissioners earning more than councilors continued into modern times.

According to a 2006 League of Oregon Cities study, 91 cities paid their mayors and city councilors nothing.

The 46 cities that paid their mayors and councilors usually offered only a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. Exceptions included Eugene, which paid its mayor $19,329 a year and its councilors $12,886 a year. Beaverton paid its mayor $134,244 per year, but that person served as the full-time administrative head of the city government.

Ashland's charter directs the city to pay its mayor $500 a year while each councilor receives $350 annually. The city has also adopted the practice of providing health insurance for the mayor and councilors, although some residents question the legality of that practice.

The cost of city-provided health insurance ranges from $5,303.40 for an individual to $14,893.02 for a family this fiscal year, according to figures from Ashland Human Resources Director Tina Gray.

In addition to county commissioner salaries that range from $68,432 to $86,341, Jackson County will pay $12,650.40 this fiscal year toward each commissioner's health insurance, according to county staff.

Counties commonly pay significantly more than cities for their elected leaders, according to an Association of Oregon Counties survey from the fiscal year that ended on June 30. The survey does not include any raises commissioners gave themselves for the current fiscal year that started on July 1.

Part-time commissioners earned as little as $9,600 per year in Clatsop County and as much as $36,024 per year in Wasco County.

Full-time commissioners in Lake County earned only $25,000 while their full-time counterparts in Multnomah County earned $82,000 a year.

Most county commissioners earned at least $55,000 per year, the survey found.

Laws said he's never thought the pay given to county commissioners made sense.

"I've always been of the opinion that they should be paid a lot less or a lot more," he said. "Now it's enough to be attractive to people who would have mediocre middle management jobs &

or worse &

and who wouldn't be paid as much. On the other hand, it doesn't pay enough to attract people of the quality that is really needed to run a government of the size and complexity of a county."

Early in Oregon's history, counties and cities lacked a top staff administrator, so elected officials managed operations. Now many counties and cities have a staff administrator or manager.

Jackson County has County Administrator Danny Jordan, while Ashland has City Administrator Martha Bennett.

Laws said commissioners could rely more on their county administrators or managers to run day-to-day operations, allowing commissioners to cut back their hours and pay.

"My preference would be for the county to have a larger commission that would be voluntary or get minimal pay, but not so they considered themselves full-time people who sat in their offices all day and told the employees what to do when the administrator is also telling them what to do," he said.

'It's a full-time job'

Jackson County Commissioner Dave Gilmour, a Democrat, served on the Central Point City Council before he was elected to the commission in 2002 and then re-elected in 2006.

"Being a county commissioner is a whole lot more work," he said, estimating his commissioner duties take 20 to 60 hours per week.

Gilmour said he took a $20,000 to $25,000 reduction in pay and didn't accept state retirement benefits or medical insurance during his first term as a county commissioner.

He said he is unique among the three county commissioners because he has outside income working as a doctor in Central Point. He said he logs 80-hour weeks with his two jobs and doesn't know if he'll seek reelection in two years.

The county funding crisis and economic downturn brought more scrutiny to the issue of county commissioner pay this year, according to Gilmour.

"It's more noticed because of it. People are more aware of it. But given the demands of the job, the salaries are not unreasonable," he said.

Gilmour said determining what is adequate commissioner pay is "in the eyes of the beholder." He noted that managers in the private sector running comparably large organizations earn more. However, county commissioners also don't have to have any specific qualifications.

"There's no criteria to be a county commissioner. You can get good people or bad people. In the past, we've seen that. You don't even have to have a high school diploma," said Gilmour, who in addition to being a doctor had experience as the health officer in Jackson County's health department before his run for county office.

Gilmour said that moving to an all-volunteer commission would be difficult unless there were more than three commissioners to divvy up the work. Not providing pay would also restrict the number of potential candidates.

"You would limit it to very wealthy people, people living on retirement income or people with spouses with a very good income. You would limit the pool of people who could do the job," he said.

Gilmour and Jackson County Commissioner C.W. Smith, a Republican, did not take the 26 percent raise that was recommended by a salary committee.

Smith said that for years, county commissioner pay and cost-of-living increases have lagged behind those given to the county's staff managers, even though the commissioners have administrative and executive oversight over the whole county government and its nearly $290.8 million annual budget.

In comparison, the Ashland City Council and mayor make the decisions that guide a city government with an adopted budget this year of $92.5 million.

Their work is usually part-time, although it can hit 40 hours a week, especially if the city is going through its annual budgeting process while also interviewing candidates for department head posts.

Smith said county governments are different than city governments because they are larger and provide more services, such as mental health services and jails &

which come with huge liability issues if mishandled.

"People try to use the city model. It doesn't work for counties at all," said Smith, who previously served as Jackson County sheriff, Lakeview city manager, Talent police chief and Talent city manager.

Smith said he may take the pay increase if the economy improves, but can live without it for now.

Democrat Jim Olney, who is challenging Smith during the November election, said he hears constant comments from county residents about the 26 percent pay increase approved by commissioners. He said if elected, he will not take the increase, but believes the previous salary level of $68,432 is justified.

Like Gilmour and Smith, Olney said he doesn't favor moving to an all-volunteer commission. He said candidates would have to be independently wealthy or retired. County commissioners deserve more pay than city councilors because they have more responsibilities, he said.

Olney previously served as the executive director of the nonprofit Jackson County Library Foundation, but recently resigned to devote himself to his campaign.

Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker, who is taking the 26 percent pay increase, did not respond to a request for comment.

Looking for a new approach

Commissioner pay issues have caused repeated controversy in next-door Josephine County, where commissioners earn $71,611 per year despite sheriff patrol cut-backs and closed libraries.

Josephine County Commissioner Dave Toler, who took office in 2007, campaigned on a platform to cut commissioner pay in half, move commissioners to part-time and hire a professional county manager. So far, he has been unable to convince his two fellow commissioners to adopt the plan.

"It's a broken system to not have a professional manager in an organization. It's not a wise way to run government," Toler said in an interview with the Tidings.

Josephine County Commissioner Dwight Ellis continues to take a 10 percent pay cut. Commissioner Jim Raffenburg took a 10 percent pay cut, but then went back to full pay and sought &

unsuccessfully &

to get back pay.

Raffenburg took a part-time job with the Grants Pass company Fire Mountain Gems. He has been working mostly half days since mid-March and has missed county meetings. In July, Toler asked Raffenburg to take a pay cut, which Raffenburg refused to do, the Grants Pass Daily Courier reported.

Josephine County's budget is about $100 million, close to the city of Ashland's $95.2 million budget.

Toler said cutting commissioner pay in half is not a solution for the financial problems affecting Josephine County, which lost $12 million in annual federal subsidies. His idea to cut Josephine County Commissioners to part-time with part-time pay would save money that could be used to hire a county manager.

Even if commissioners became volunteers who received no pay or benefits, the savings would be only about $300,000, he said.

Toler said he is not advocating that commissioners become volunteers.

"My experience as a 10-year volunteer school board member was that it was hard to do a good job when you have a family to feed and a job. I always felt a little frustrated &

and I know the others did, too &

that I couldn't devote enough time to it," said Toler, estimating that he spent five to 10 hours a week on school board duties.

He said he works more than 40 hours per week as a county commissioner.

Voters in Curry County, home to the town of Gold Beach on the Oregon coast, will have a chance to decide in November whether they want a new county charter that would establish a five member volunteer commission with a county administrator.

Ralph Martin and Ian Maitland, who turned in enough signatures last week to qualify the proposed charter for the ballot, told the Curry Coastal Pilot newspaper that with the loss of federal funding, the county has to cut back. Martin said he hopes the different approach will lead to a more transparent and less expensive county government.

Curry County commissioners would hold meetings at 6 p.m. or later so that they could have regular day jobs and also accommodate working residents who want to attend meetings.

In an interview with the Tidings, Curry County Commissioner Georgia Nowlin said the three full-time commissioners there earn about $60,000. The county has no administrator or manager

The county was on the verge of eliminating all sheriff's patrols when a last minute extension of limited federal funding allowed the county to keep some patrols. The library has its own funding district and residents will likely have to approve a law enforcement district to keep those services in the future, Nowlin said.

Like Toler, Nowlin doesn't see an all-volunteer commission as a fix for funding problems. Nowlin said hiring a county administrator would eat up at least $100,000 from the savings that would come from not paying county commissioners.

Josephine County has the lowest tax rate in the state, while Curry County has the second lowest tax rate, she said.

Nowlin said there's been talk of dissolving the Curry County government altogether and having a state oversight board manage affairs. Another alternative would be to meld Curry and Coos County, although Coos County has financial problems of its own, she said.

Nowlin said now is not the time to be changing the structure and pay of the Curry County Board of Commissioners.

"When you're bailing water out of a sinking ship, you don't redesign the bucket," she said.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or

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