Madera County supervisors have set a hearing for Tuesday to consider and vote on raising their salaries by 3 percent — a raise of roughly $2,500 a year each.
The board’s last increase in pay took effect July 1, 2017.
The proposed hike is similar in scale to a 2.8 percent cost-of-living adjustment that those living on Social Security will receive at year’s end. The boost to Social Security benefits is automatic and based on the percentage by which the Department of Labor’s consumer price index increased from last year.
Supervisors set the hearing by a 4-1 vote Nov. 20, with District 3 Supervisor Robert Poythress dissenting. They did so after unanimously approving a 3 percent salary adjustment for unrepresented employees, including appointed and elected department heads.
Poythress questioned the need for a supervisor salary adjustment and felt the board’s longstanding method for setting its own salaries to be odd. No other county employees, he pointed out, have their annual wages defined as a percentage of what Superior Court judges earn.
“I know that this is a pretty common practice throughout the state, in our region, and probably comparable counties … But I know that the last two years, for myself, we’ve received two increases and its averaged … about 5 percent per year,” said Poythress, who noted “it’s been a pretty healthy increase.”
Due to their pay being linked to that of judges, supervisors automatically gain in pay whenever judges do. Yet they can also vote themselves additional adjustments and raises.
“There’s times that there’s automatic increases that come in from that and maybe we should look at getting away from that system,” admitted District 1 Supervisor Brett Frazier, who nonetheless supported the salary adjustment due to it being the same as other staff would get.
In his dissent, Poythress also objected to judging local supervisor pay based on that of other counties. That isn’t comparing “apples to apples,” he said, “because each county has a different office setup.” He cited the higher pay of Merced County supervisors as an example.
“They might make another 15 percent more than we do here, but they do not have chiefs of staff … So it’s a bigger job. They have to take on more,” Poythress explained. “So when you look at total compensation for each supervisor’s office, we are actually significantly higher than, say, a Merced.”
Poythress offered several more examples, including counties with much higher populations. But other supervisors protested those comparisons weren’t relevant due to the largely rural nature of Madera County, which means supervisors have to handle responsibilities that cities would otherwise take over. Madera County has only two incorporated cities — Chowchilla and Madera.
“We have responsibility for all the things that a city does but on a county-wide basis … It’s one thing after another,” said District 2 Supervisor David Rogers, who said it was nonstop, full-time, burdensome and “part of the job.”
Complicating matters, Madera County base salaries diverge significantly on average from total compensation due to the county’s practice of offering “longevity pay,” according to Poythress. Mandated by negotiated contracts, longevity pay provides a salary bonus of 5 percent after 10 years satisfactory work, another 2.5 percent after five more years, and an additional 2.5 percent following yet five more years. In practice, longevity pay tends to upwardly skew the compensation for elected department heads above the median, he said.
County resident Rod Hessman commented to the board that “loyalty pay” has been done away with “in every industry he’s worked in” decades ago.
“By doing away with it, everyone was on an even keel, and most people don’t change jobs because by doing so they begin again at the bottom of the pay scale,” said Hessman, then interrupted by District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, who said longevity pay was needed to attract and keep quality staff.
In response, Hessman said, “Even if they did, you could replace them with someone even better. Also, most people prefer cradle-to-grave employment. They don’t like to change jobs after five or 10 years.” He also questioned the efficiency of paying for costly compensation studies and then not implementing then due to insufficient funds.
Poythress concluded his argument against the adjustment by highlighting “the mere fact that what we’re getting paid doesn’t seem to be a significant barrier for us to run for re-election. Apparently we’re happy with what we’re getting paid, or we haven’t had to go out and find other employment because what we’re getting paid as county supervisors is not enough money.”
Frazier later noted he did have another job.
Supervisors currently make between $80 to $84 thousand annually, plus an additional $500 per month for the chairman of the board.
If the board approves its own salary adjustment Dec. 4, it would not take effect until 60 days after final adoption of the ordinance, according to Adrienne Calip, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer.
The practice of setting county supervisor wages as a percentage of a judge’s salary is common but not a universal practice for the politically sensitive issue of pay increases for elected officials. For example, citizen commissions set pay for the governor, state legislators and other elected officials in California and Washington. Likewise, an independent commission fixes salaries of Snohomish County, Washington, elected officials every two years.
Having pay adjustments or raises take effect during an elected official’s term — as is done in Madera County — is also not a universal practice in U.S. government. The 27th Constitutional Amendment requires that any pay adjustment Congress votes for itself does not take effect until after the next election. Since the passage of the 1992 amendment, the rise of congressional pay has slowed significantly.