HOLLIDAYSBURG - Before 2014 ends, Blair County commissioners must set salaries for elected county leaders taking office in 2016.
The practice is required by the state's County Code, with timing linked to the following year's elections so potential candidates are aware of the salaries associated with jobs they seek. While the task usually draws attention in every Pennsylvania county, it often occurs with minimal controversy.
Eight years ago, Blair County commissioners drew no objections when deciding on a four-year freeze on the salaries of elected officials. At that time, the budget-balancing process had become difficult and commissioners were regularly asking departments to keep a tight rein on spending.
Four years ago, when the financial picture was a little better, commissioners considered and drew support from fellow elected officials for a 2 percent annual increase in the salaries.
Blair County commissioners have not yet set a date for this year's meeting when they will set salaries applicable to those serving from 2016 to 2020, which is likely to be a financially precarious time. Budget projections show 2017 as the year when revenue will fall short of covering expenses, even after increasing the general fund tax levy to 30 mills.
That projection was one reason commissioners voted earlier this year to pursue the first reassessment since 1958.
The reassessment schedule also indicates that commissioners, in 2016, will be signing off on new property values for use in calculating 2017's real estate taxes and they will be working with the appeals filed by challenging property owners.
Commissioners Chairman Terry Tomassetti said last week that he is not yet ready to address the task of setting salaries or increases for the elected officials taking office as of 2016. He said he needs more financial information and he wants to review salaries being paid to elected officials in other counties.
Commissioners Diane Meling and Ted Beam Jr. also said they, too, are interested in more financial information to help them with the decision.
"We're certainly not overpaid in this county," Beam said. "And I would think that's the case in most other counties."
Meling said she also would be interested in suggestions from the other county office holders.
"We will want their input," she said.
The practice's start
The practice of setting salaries for elected county officials used to be handled by state lawmakers. But that changed in 1980 at the end of a long controversy.
During the 1970s when inflation was steadily increasing, county leaders complained to state lawmakers about their stagnant salaries. The prompted legislation, in 1976, which granted $3,000 raises to elected county leaders, the first raises since 1972. But the legislation also ignited a controversy over when those raises were to take effect, prompting lawsuits and an appeal that went to the state Supreme Court.
In a 5-to-1 ruling in July 1979, the state's highest court court declared that the $3,000 raises could not be awarded to county leaders holding office when the raises were approved. Instead, the court said the raises were to be effective for the next group of elected officials, and ordered all county leaders who received raises inapproriately to pay back the money.
In Blair County, no repayments were needed. Eugene J. Duncan, then county treasurer, had taken the position that the raises were for subsequently elected officials and refused to sign paychecks with the raise so paychecks were issued without it.
Once the court ruling was issued, the annual salary of a Blair County commissioner went from $15,000 to $18,000. The salary of the district attorney, then considered a part-time position, went from $14,500 to $17,500.
Other salary increases, according to a 1978 Altoona Mirror story, indicated that the $3,000 raise would take the register/recorder's pay to $17,000, the controller's pay to $16,000 and the coroner's pay to $11,000.
Subsequent legislation, authorizing $3,000 raises to elected county officials holding office as of January 1980, placed the responsibility of setting future raises and salaries with county commissioners.
Centre County ready
Centre County commissioners have already held a meeting to set the salaries of elected officials for 2016 to 2020. After four years of no increases, commissioners voted Tuesday on 1.5 percent annual increases during each year of the four-year period.
Centre County commissioners currently earn $70,668 each and its row officers, which includes the treasurer, controller, register/recorder, coroner, prothonotary and sheriff, earn $63,937 annually. Those salaries will be the same in 2015, then increase in 2016 to $71,728 annually and $64,896, respectively.
Before Tuesday's vote, commissioners reviewed salaries of elected officials in eight fourth-class counties with populations from 145,000 to 209,999. That included Cambria County, where commissioners are currently making $62,495 a year and row officers making $55,985 annually. Like Blair, Cambria County have not yet set salaries for 2016-20.
While Blair County is classified as a fifth-class county (with a population of 90,000 to 144,999), its commissioners are currently earning $64,606 and as of January, they will get a 2 percent raise for 2015.
The salaries of Blair County row officers vary, with this year's range at a low of $57,311 for the sheriff to a high of $63,746 for the register/recorder.
Different factors in play
When Centre County commissioners considered the setting new salaries for the next group of elected officials, they looked at several factors, Centre County Administrator Tim Boyde said.
The 1.5 percent annual raise, he said, was deemed to be an inflationary increase, appropriate after four years of zero increases for a group of people holding full-time positions.
"To some extent, the public perception of the job held by commissioners and row officers varies from county to county," Boyde said. "But in Centre County, this is the only occupation each of them has."
Boyde also mentioned the responsibilities that go with each elected position and the need, especially by commissioners, to have at least some understanding of 35 to 36 departments responsible for county operations.
"Seventy thousand dollars might sound like a lot of money for a county commissioner," Boyde said. "But the CEO of a $70- or $80-million dollar business is earning a lot more than that because in the business world, $70,000 is not a lot of money."
Pennsylvania's County Code, which spells out the duties of elected county officials, contains no information about the hours associated with each position and whether it's a part-time or full-time position. The code also contains no recall procedures if an elected official is not performing to the satisfaction of others.
A drastic cut
Two commissioners in Northumberland County seemed to be ahead of other commissioners in the state when they decided, in late 2013, to address future salaries of county elected officials. That's when they agreed that it was time to cut the salaries for those jobs by $25,000 or $30,000 and require the office holders to pay 50 percent of the county's cost for healthcare benefits.
As a result, the pay for commissioners was to drop from $61,000 to $31,500 annually. The coroner's salary was to drop from $53,834 to $30,500. Salaries for the prothonotary, register/record, sheriff and treasurer were destined to drop to $31,000 annually.
Commissioners Chairman Vinny Clausi and Vice Chairman Stephen Bridy defended the cuts, saying that after years of financial difficulties, it was time for the county's elected leaders to sacrifice pay and benefits.
Fellow commissioner Richard Schock disagreed and predicted that such drastic salary reductions will lead to theft and incompetence.
The clash generated a court case with an injunction that put a hold on the Clausi/Bridy proposal. During a court hearing in November with Centre County Judge David E. Grine presiding, Clausi further defended his proposal by stating that he reviewed the salaries of similarly situated jobs and found them to be about $30,000.
Some decline raises
When commissioners set the salaries of elected officials from 2012 to 2015, they included 2 percent annual raises which would have taken controller's salary to $56,187 in 2012, to $57,311 in 2013 and to $58,457 in 2014.
But Controller Richard J. Peo said his salary remains at $55,085 annually, where it has been since 2007 when the four-year pay freeze was enacted.
"That's good enough for me," Peo said. "It's that simple, and really, I think that's plenty of money for anybody."
Peo isn't the only county leader who has declined salary increases. Former Commissioner Barry W. Wright, who held office from 2004 to 2007, made $55,176 during each of his four years in office, even though the pay for commissioners increased by 3 percent annually for the first two years and 3.5 percent for the last two years of his term.
Blair County Prothonotary Carol Newman said she won't complain about her salary but will complain about the salaries paid to her staff.
"I've got some of the lowest paid people in the county in my office," she said. The low salaries, she said, lead to regular turnover and retraining.
Treasurer Jim Carothers said he couldn't offer an opinion on the next set of salaries for elected officials without knowing more about what the county will face in terms of its budget, the projected rate of inflation and any factors affecting the rank and file employees.
"I'd like to see the information they're going to review," Carothers said. "Until you know all they're facing, it's difficult to offer an informed opinion."