By SEAN BATURA
Even after budgeting a six-percent increase for elected officials in October, Hays County still considerably underpays those employees, according to a study conducted by Ray Associates and a citizen panel.
Katherine Ray, president of Ray Associates, told the Hays County Commissioners Court Tuesday morning that the county still lags 20.6 percent behind an average of comparable counties in its pay for elected officials.
Most elected officials took pay raises as the Fiscal Year 2009 budget allowed when it went into effect on Oct. 1. Three commissioners – Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) of Precinct 1, Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) of Precinct 2 and Will Conley (R-San Marcos) of Precinct 3 – all declined their increases until a preliminary report from the panel in December showed that the new salaries are defensible. In the meantime, Ingalsbe and Conley won re-election in November.
“What the study shows is that Hays County has pretty woefully underpaid its elected officials for some time now, and it’s time to fix that,” Ray said. “I hope you won’t be afraid to make those adjustments, because it’s going to be important to keep this current so that you don’t fall behind again and find that you’re really not paying appropriately for the job you’re expecting people to accomplish.”
Factoring in the October pay upgrades, Hays County judge and commissioner salaries are still 18.2 percent and 25.9 percent lower, respectively, than those of benchmarked counties. The Hays County salaries for sheriff and tax collector-assessor are, respectively, 12.2 percent and 24 percent below the average.
The counties set for determining the marketplace averages included Comal, Bastrop, Williamson, Ellis, McLennan, Guadalupe, Denton, Brazoria, Fort Bend, Travis and Montgomery.
While finding that Hays County elected officials are paid less than their peers from other counties, the study also found that supplemental income for some Hays County elected positions exceeds the average. A Hays County commissioner receives $9,744 per year in travel allowances, compared to an average of $3,927 among commissioners from benchmarked counties. Hays County also budgets more in travel allowances for district clerk, justices of the peace, tax assessor-collector and county judge.
The citizens committee recommended that the budget for elected officials be increased by 26 percent next fiscal year. The proposed increase would affect county commissioners’ pay the most, bringing their salaries to $87,869. The current salary for county commissioner is $65,048, up from last fiscal year’s $56,757.
Pay for the county judge would increase from $77,490 to $102,976. County commissioners and the county judge also benefited the most from this year’s salary increase. Pay for the sheriff would be the least affected by the proposed increase, changing to $97,396 from this year’s rate of $87,689.
According to the Hays County Treasurer’s office, elected officials received pay raises of 4.5 percent in 2007, three percent in 2006 and four percent in 2005. No elected official received a salary increase in 2004. All elected officials benefited from a two percent raise in 2003.
On Sept. 10, the commissioners court voted to set the new salaries for elected officials, with only Conley voting against the motion. The court voted unanimously on Sept. 30 to authorize the creation of a citizens committee to review pay for elected officials.
“When I found out it was a unanimous recommendation of the committee that we should take the raise that the others took back in October, I went ahead and took mine,” Barton said. “I gave up the months of October (and) November. I did not take it retroactively, and so I’m still out cash out-of-pocket. I will still earn less this year than Commissioner Ford.”
Hays County Treasurer Michele Tuttle said she could recall only one occasion in her 27 years of working for the county when a commissioner declined a pay raise. According to county records, Commissioners Russ Molenaar (Precinct 4) and Craig Payne (Precinct 3) voted against Barton’s motion to set new salaries for elected officials in August 1996. Payne declined his raise and retired the following year.
“If I recall, commissioners had been giving themselves raises fairly regularly through the 1990s, and I thought we had just gotten ahead of everybody else, with other pay raises being low,” Payne said this week. “We gave ourselves higher pay raises than we gave other elected officials as well as county employees. I didn’t think it was fair to do that to county employees, since we were the ones setting salaries and then giving ourselves a higher salary than anyone else. At that time, I thought it was far more than we should be doing.”
The budget for elected officials’ staff salaries grew 17 percent on the present budget, compared to six percent growth in the amount budgeted for elected official salaries. The largest increase occurred in the Precinct 4 constable’s office, where the budget for staff grew by 62.9 percent, from $63,956 to $104,217.
The average budgets for county commissioners’ staffs grew 15.4 percent, and the amount allocated to county judge staff increased by eight percent this fiscal year.
Payne said he doesn’t think Hays County commissioners are underpaid.
“They work hard,” Payne said. “But you know what? They don’t take care of the roads, and that’s why I don’t think they necessarily need that travel expense as high as they do. Because in the old days, when I was commissioner, and I had to travel all the roads, and I was considered the road commissioner, we took care of roads, and the only thing I’d do is go to Austin every once in a while and go to a couple of meetings over at Bryan-College Station. I don’t know if it takes that much money per month for that travel. I think that’s excessive.”
Commissioners didn’t appoint individuals to the citizens committee. Except for Professor Sherri Mora of Texas State University, the other six people on the committee were randomly chosen – two from the Hays County grand jury pool and one each from the Buda Area Chamber of Commerce (BACC), C-FAN, Inc., the Hays CISD and the City of Kyle.
After the Tuesday’s meeting, Conley said the study will be useful for formulating comprehensive pay increases for elected officials in future years. Barton said he “would love to see” the legislature require counties to use independent citizens advisory boards when determining their elected officials’ salaries.
“I think it’s a process that we ought to be doing,” Barton said. “The law requires us to set our own salaries, which is usually taken by counties everywhere to mean, ‘Well, you just got to pick your own salary.’ That’s a minimum standard. It doesn’t mean we can’t go above and beyond that and reach out and involve members of the community, and have people review our own pay so that we’re not making that determination in a void. It seems to me we serve as that check and balance for department heads and employees, and citizens ought to serve as that check and balance for us.”
Ray said citizens besides those on the committee were allowed into the meetings to determine pay, though those meetings were not posted.Email | Print