GREEN COVE SPRINGS – They didn’t ask for it, but Clay County Commissioners may be seeing an 89 percent bump in their pay scale in the coming months that would put them more in line with what most …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – They didn’t ask for it, but Clay County Commissioners may be seeing an 89 percent bump in their pay scale in the coming months that would put them more in line with what most of the other county commissioners in the state are making. The subject of salaries for members of the Board of County Commissioners in Clay County has proven to be one of the main topics of discussion for the county’s 2017-2018 Charter Review Commission – so much so, that a subcommittee was set up to discuss the subject in detail and bring back a report to the full CRC focusing on a way of moving forward on the subject. That subcommittee met Dec. 7, and determined there should indeed be further discussion of the entire Charter Review Commission on the subject, and how to implement possible salary changes.
The subcommittee is made up of Larry Kirkman, who is acting as chairman, Ronald Stotler, Charles Cook and Charles R. “Scotty” Taylor Jr., who is the vice chairman of the entire CRC. Cook was unable to attend the Dec. 7 subcommittee meeting.
A Charter Review Commission is appointed every four years to look at the county’s charter and determine if there are issues that need to be revised or amended. Fifteen members of the community, nominated by the Board of County Commissioners (three nominees per commissioner) sit on the CRC. Five alternatives are also nominated.
Clay County is one of 20 charter counties in the state, which means it is governed under what is called “home rule.” The other 47 counties are known as “constitutional” counties and are ruled by state statute.
The 2017-2018 Charter Review Commission began meeting Oct. 26, with one of its first charges being for each member to come up with a list of 3 to 5 items for possible discussion. Almost every member listed commissioners’ salaries as a topic. The problem the CRC members saw was that Clay County commissioners fall near the bottom of the pay scale compared to the majority of other commissioners in the state.
Clay County Commissioners have been paid $37,000 a year for about the last 10 years, putting their pay tens of thousands of dollars below many other commissioners in the state. Current Clay County Commissioner salaries were set by a voter-imitative that was held in the November 4, 2008 general election. By a vote of 69,602 yes votes, to 14,423 no votes, the electorate approved lowering BCC members’ salaries to $37,000 per year. Also, that year, voters approved a measure requiring a 60 percent vote to approve future county charter amendments. That vote, on what was called Amendment 2, was passed 65,054 yes votes, to 16,103 no votes.
Most of the other commissioners’ salaries are set by a formula that is a state statute known as section 145.031, or “145” for short. If Clay County’s commissioner salaries were determined by 145, they would be looking at a salary more in the $70,000-plus range.
For Kirkman, that discrepancy is something that needs to be dealt with.
“Why is it that we have decided in our wisdom that our county commissioners are only worth half of what the vast majority of county commissioners are being paid in 57 other counties,” he asked.
According to County Auditor Mike Price, who works for the county commission, the reason has really nothing to do with the sitting commissioners, but goes back to a turbulent time in Clay County some 10 years ago. At that time, there were several “scandals” going on involving county government that resulted in Federal Bureau of Investigation and state attorney’s office investigations, a grand jury being convened in 2006 and two senior management-level BCC employees being terminated. There was also the indictment and trials of an elected official and a senior manager, Price said in a memo to the CRC.
In addition, another scandal had occurred in 2004 that alleged an elected official had misused a county credit card, Price said.
“At the time the Charter Review Commission was meeting in 2006, the public considered the county government to be basically dishonest,” Price said in his memo, adding that it was looking for ways to make county government more accountable.
One idea the Charter Review Commission came up with was to add two at-large county commissioners to the BCC, paying for the two new members by cutting the existing salaries of the other five members. The salaries would be 70 percent of the then-current salaries, which were prescribed by statute for non-charter county commissioners. The elected chair of the BCC would get 80 percent of the statutory amount, Price said.
But even though those amendments were passed by the voters on the November 2006 ballot, they never went into effect, even though two new members were indeed elected in November 2008. A lawsuit was filed and a judge threw out the election of the two additional county commission positions.
“The cumulative effect of these scandals over time, however, was to motivate the creation of a number of citizen-driven political action committees, the most formidable of which was Clay County Citizens for Term Limits and Accountability Committee,” Price said.
That group, which had opposed the November 2006 amendments, worked to overturn them by amending the charter through a citizen’s initiative. It also proposed cutting commissioners’ pay to $37,000. Both items passed and have stayed the same.
To Price, the whole thing was a way to punish previous commissioners. Saying what was material to the discussion was really the “things that we ask people to be responsible and accountable for,” Price said he thought those items “demand a lot more consideration than the $37,000 somebody thought up 10 years ago to punish people that weren’t even going to be there when this could take effect because state law says you can’t reduce their (commissioners’) pay during their term of office. So, it didn’t even affect the people it wanted to punish. And that’s all this was about, in my humble opinion, was strictly punishment.”
For the members of the subcommittee, it was clear, they said, that there should be some sort of adjustment to the current county commissioners’ salaries. The problem they worried about was how to present it properly to the public, so people would understand the situation and what had occurred.
Trying to raise the salaries in one fell swoop might be too much for the public, Stotler said, because it could be more than $30,000 per commissioner.
“The public’s going to have a hard time voting for that much of a single pay raise,” he said.
A phased-in approach, perhaps over five years, was also discussed.
In the end, the subcommittee unanimously approved presenting three recommendations to the entire CRC for consideration. One of those would be to adopt the whole constitutional pay scale for county commissioners and make it effective as soon as legally possible, presumably Jan. 1, 2019.
The second option would be to do the same thing but do it over a period of five years.
The third option would be a slight modification of option Number Two and would state that the CRC would not have to put salaries at 100 percent of the constitutional formula’s amount, but could use any percentage of that formula it deemed proper.
The full Charter Review Commission is expected to take up the issue at its next meeting on January 2, 2018 at 7 p.m.