County Commission applications shot up following salary hike

A $90,000-plus salary may be among the reasons the races for two Jackson County commissioner seats have drawn a crowd.

So far, 10 candidates are on the ballot for the May 18 primary, a number not seen since the 1990 and 1994 elections. The filing deadline is March 9, and at least one more Democratic candidate might file, which would push the number to record levels.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour, who is not seeking re-election, said he's not sure what impact the salary has had in attracting candidates.

"I don't think it's the main reason," he said. "But it is a reason."

The three commissioners each have a salary of $94,661, plus $27,000 in benefits. A new commissioner would have a starting salary of $90,168.

Two years ago a county salary committee recommended the commissioners' pay be raised from $68,432 to $86,341. In addition to the raise, the commissioners could receive a step increase each year, subject to approval by the salary committee. As a result, the salary increased to $90,661 last year, then to $94,661 this year. In the past two years, commissioners have seen their wages jump by 38 percent.

Candidates for the two seats have said they are running to address issues and to improve county government. However, some have said the salary is appropriate for the kind of professional skills required for the position.

Gilmour said the county commissioner position has become more professional over the past few years, and the salary reflects that trend.

The salary could be one of many factors a candidate weighs when making a decision to run, Gilmour said.

"If it attracts the best people, it is well worth it," he said.

Gilmour, who also works as a Central Point doctor, earlier said he wouldn't take the salary increase but now says he has decided to accept it in his last year as a commissioner because he needs the money.

"It's a little bit of self-interest as I transition back into my practice," he said.

Gilmour said he decided to take the extra money this year to help save for a three- to four-month period next year in which he will not be fully compensated during his transition back to work as a full-time doctor.

For most of his almost eight years in office he has taken a lesser amount in salary than his two fellow commissioners.

"The main thing is I saved $150,000 to $200,000 in salary and benefits that I did not take," he said.

Commissioner C.W. Smith initially turned down the salary increase two years ago, but decided to take it after his re-election in 2008.

Smith said he's not sure how much of an effect the salary increase has had on attracting new candidates.

But, he said that an appropriate salary for a commissioner makes it worth the risk for someone who already has a good career but wants to run for political office.

Smith said county government is a more dynamic part of the community in recent years, dominated by land-use decisions, reopening libraries and steering the budget from a deep hole to building reserves.

Commissioner Jack Walker, who said he intends to file his candidacy papers this week, said that one of the goals of the salary hike was to attract qualified candidates with business sense.

"Our big effort was to get business people involved in government," Walker said. "It makes a huge difference."

Walker said the county is being run more like a business now, which has put the county in a better financial position than it was three years ago, saving millions of dollars in the process.

As part of this effort to run the county like a business, Walker said it requires paying people salaries comparable to what they would have received in the private sector.

"I think it's an incentive to say I've always wanted to participate in government and now I have this opportunity to do this," he said.

Allen Hallmark, chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Central Committee, said he thinks the salary could be a factor, but from his knowledge of Democratic candidates it is far down the list of reasons to run.

"Most of these guys are pretty sharp and could earn a living some other way," he said.

Hallmark was surprised the salary now topped $90,000, but said a commissioner should be considered a professional who spends a lot of time on behalf of the community.

Mark Ness, chairman of the Jackson County Republican Central Committee, said the salary might have some effect on a candidate's decision to run.

"I think that's one of the attractions to it," he said.

However, he said, candidates also have a strong desire to be involved in the politic process and to contribute to the community.

Ness said he doesn't begrudge the commissioners their salary.

"I think the people should be paid well, and there should be a lot expected of them," he said.

He said, however, the benefits packages should be cut, and those running for political office should find their own retirement and health care.

For most people, he said, running for an elected office doesn't make sense because of the time involved and the lack of compensation. He noted that city council members are volunteers and state legislators receive relatively modest stipends.

The commissioners are one of the only local exceptions he could think of.

"Honestly, I don't think they're overpaid," Ness said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or

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