Monroe County commissioners get preliminary OK for $10K salary increase

At their budget work session on Thursday, the third in as many days, Monroe County councilors voted 5–2 to set the salaries for the three county commissioners at $46,000, which is about $10,000 more than they were paid last year.

From the on-screen live spreadsheet used by Monroe County councilors to track their budget revisions during their Sept. 10 work session, which was conducted on the Zoom videoconferencing platform.

It’s about $14,000 less than the figure that commissioners had requested.

Thursday’s vote set the amount that will be included in the advertised budget, which will get a final vote in mid-October.

Procedurally, the councilors voted to reduce the three line items for each of the commissioners in their proposed budget from a requested $60,133 to $46,000.

Commissioners had asked for around $60,000, which would have put them on roughly equal footing with other Monroe County electeds like the auditor, treasurer and recorder. It would have also made their compensation on par with county commissioners in Tippecanoe County.

Tippecanoe County is considered a comparable, in part because Monroe County is home to Indiana University’s flagship campus in Bloomington and Tippecanoe is home to Purdue University in West Lafayette.

The vote did not fall purely along party lines. Republican Marty Hawk voted against the $46,000 figure, as did Democrat Kate Wiltz. The other five Democrats on the county council voted for the salary increase.

In her comments, Hawk alluded to a letter to Bloomington’s city council, which the county council had voted to sign two days earlier. “We signed a statement saying that we think this is the wrong time to be raising income tax on the people of this county. And yet at the same time, … the taxes we’ve already collected, we are going to spend in ways that are going to give some people a much larger raise than the lowest-paid county employees that start at under $30,000.”

Hawk added, “I have a problem with it, but I accept that this is what’s going to happen.”

Wiltz told the three commissioners, who attended the county council’s meeting, “You exhaust me just watching, and you’re doing an amazing job. And you are undoubtedly under-compensated for the jobs that you are doing.”

For Wiltz the key consideration was a comprehensive salary study and job description overhaul that the county had just agreed to conduct. The contract with Waggoner, Irwin, Scheele & Associates (WIS) carries a price tag of $98,720.

Wiltz pointed out, “We just paid for a study of our salaries…and we intentionally incorporated elected officials into that study to give us the information to make this decision that we’re trying to make.” That information is not yet available.

Those voting in favor of the increase were led by councilor Geoff McKim, who early in the deliberations made a motion to reduce the requested amount from roughly $60,000 to $46,000. McKim called the $10,000 increase a “downpayment” on a possibly higher salary in the future.

About the recommendation that will come from the WIS salary study cited by Wiltz, McKim said, “It’s hard to imagine that it will not be significantly higher than it is right now.”

McKim said his initial reaction to the commissioners’ request for a bump from $36,000 to $60,000—which was first day-lighted at an Aug. 21 work session—was akin to “Not only ‘No’ but ‘Heck, no!'”

But McKim said he was convinced that commissioners are underpaid, and the only question is by how much. He said their salaries “seem kind of antiquated,” considering that they’re comparable to the CEO of an organization with more than 500 employees.

McKim allowed that approving a salary increase now was “really bad timing.” First, at the same time when the county council is struggling to find a way to give an incremental annual raise to county employees, “It looks really bad to be giving the commissioners a substantial salary increase. I get that.” Second, McKim said, “We probably should have done something last year, before candidates had a chance to file for election.”

In support of the salary increase, county council president Eric Spoonmore said, “In my opinion, these positions [of county commissioner] involve just way too much responsibility and accountability to the community to be kind of relegated away as a part-time side gig.”

In their presentation to the county council before the deliberations, commissioners stressed how much time it takes to do the job of county commissioner, on top of the need to work other jobs to make ends meet. It’s a full-time job, they said.

Hawk characterized some of the activities described by the commissioners as just part of what public servants do. “I think that’s part of being a public servant. I do the same thing. I mean, that’s what we do. … Nobody tells us we have to. That’s just what we do.”

President of the board of commissioners Julie Thomas responded to Hawk’s remarks by saying, “Yes, indeed, we all come into this wanting to be public servants. But I have had a total of five days off since the pandemic started in March and that includes weekends. Five days. 80-hour weeks, 100-hour weeks. I’m burning out. So we appreciate your consideration.”

The county council’s final budget work session is set for Friday, Sept. 11 at 5 p.m.