To feel better about local government, lower their pay

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For those of us who delight in the political theater of the absurd, Nov. 2 was an unmitigated delight.

Dan Maes! Tom Tancredo! The Ugly Three! Dick “it’s not my fault” Wadhams! Strong Mayor to be named later! And most of all, the bamboozled voters of El Paso County, who loosened term limits when they thought they were strengthening them.

The measure didn’t institute term limits for county elected officials, as many voters appeared to believe. Instead, it extended those limits from two terms to three.

You can blame the carelessness of local voters, who may have neglected to read the ballot title of the measure, or you can blame the deceptive wording that apparently flummoxed those who thought they understood it.

Either way, it qualifies as a shameless piece of political self-dealing. Of the five commissioners, only Jim Bensberg voted against putting it on the ballot.

Why did the other four commissioners bother? Occam’s razor suggests a simple explanation: Because by doing so they incurred no risk, and stood to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars.

El Paso County commissioners are paid $87,300 annually, and receive benefits that include comprehensive health insurance and PERA, making the package worth more than $100,000.

It’s the sweetest deal in Colorado politics. Imagine being paid a hundred grand for a job with no defined responsibilities other than attending meetings, no boss, no performance benchmarks and a spacious private office. Eight years and out? Wouldn’t 12 years be better, especially if you think yourself unsuited to a menial, exhausting and underpaid position in the private sector?

Even if El Paso County residents are upset by the apparent hypocrisy of the Gang of Four, there’s not much they can do. Voter-initiated measures aren’t permitted in Colorado counties, which are considered part of state government. Commissioner salaries are determined by the legislature, which is advised in the matter by the 13-member County Elected Officials Salary Commission.

That body, in accordance with statute, consists of “county commissioners, sheriffs, clerk and recorders, assessors, treasurers, coroners and surveyors.” I know you’ll be surprised to learn that the body recommended a 5 percent pay raise for all county elected officials, beginning in 2011.

Legislators are less generously compensated. They receive an annual salary of $30,000, which is supplemented by an expense allowance of up to $150 per diem during the 120-day session for legislators from outside the Denver metro area.

Why hasn’t the legislature taken the obvious step of reducing commissioner salaries? A former state senator who asked not to be named gave me an unvarnished explanation.

“It’s a no-win, John,” he said. “Some of these guys (legislators) represent parts of several counties, and while the legislators are up in Denver, the commissioners are home talking to the voters. Why risk political suicide just to cut someone’s pay — and who knows, you might want to run for commissioner yourself one day!”

So what’s the remedy? A statewide initiative pegging commissioners and city council members in municipalities above a certain population to those of legislators would do the trick. Instead of having five commissioners making $87,300 and nine council members making $6,250, we’d pay all of them a salary of $30,000-$40,000. We wouldn’t save much money, but we’d level the playing field.

Right now, we have the worst of possible worlds. Council is virtually unpaid and the commissioners are overpaid.

Elected office should be neither a sinecure nor a burden. Salaries at the level I’m proposing would make it possible for anyone to serve on council or the commission, and remove county commissioners from the privileged class.

And statewide, consider that there are 64 counties, and about 224 county commissioners. For the five counties in “Category VI,” presumably those where coyotes and longhorn cattle outnumber voters by 4-1, commissioners make a mere $39,700. The big dogs in the 10 largest counties make $87,300, while the remainder make between $43,800 and $72,500. Average compensation: $58,621, plus benefits.

Total compensation is more difficult to calculate, since the actual number of commissioners varies between three and five. If the average number is 3.5 per county, that would suggest total compensation of about $13.1 million.

Is it a good idea? Sure. Will it make for better government? Probably not, because there doesn’t seem to be a quantifiable link between pay and performance for elected officials. Will it make us feel better about local government?

That’s the idea.

Hazlehurst can be reached at johnhazlehurst@csbj.com or 719-227-5861.