Public employees getting pay raises for the first time since 2008 include county elected officials, township trustees and judges whose 5 percent annual pay hikes in coming years likely will outpace inflation and exceed what some union workers will get, an I-Team analysis found.
The raises come as the Ohio General Assembly considers approaching voters with a constitutional amendment that could give state lawmakers a raise next year and overhaul how elected officials are paid across the state.
State lawmakers included the 5 percent pay hikes for local politicians in the two-year state budget passed in June. It gives judges, sheriffs and prosecutors 5 percent annual pay raises through 2019 and other elected offices the same bump over the next two years.
Judges will get pay hikes this year. Other officials will only get them if and when they’re re-elected. This means county officials on the ballot next year will stand to boost their pay 10.25 percent in 2017, or more than $10,000 in some cases.
“If I get re-elected in 2018 and get a pay raise, it’ll be my first pay raise in 10 years,” said Montgomery County auditor Karl Keith, whose salary would go from $91,248 to $100,601.
The law also puts counties with populations below 55,000 into the same pay range. This means county commissioners in Ohio’s six tiniest counties would get raises of more than 30 percent if re-elected, and those in the 14 next-smallest would get 20 percent raises.
“While elected officials are committed to public service, I think we all can agree they should be adequately compensated,” said Cheryl Subler, managing director of policy for the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.
“Don’t we want to be able to attract well qualified, talented people to oversee our courts, provide our public safety and services, and manage our finite taxpayer dollars?”
‘A slap in the face’
But lawmakers gave state employees, many of whom have also seen their pay frozen since 2008, only 2.5 percent a year this year, next year and in 2017. The statewide pay hike was the outcome of the state’s negotiation with the Ohio Civil Services Employee Association, which represents most of the state’s more than 52,000 workers.
Lawmakers budgeted a total of $77 million for these raises from the general fund and will have to budget more money for 2017 in the next two-year budget. The total cost for these raises reaches $300 million when all revenue sources — including federal money, fees, licenses and grants — are taken into account.
“It’s kind of just a slap in the face,” said OCSEA president Christopher Mabe of lawmakers giving fellow politicians twice the pay raise they granted workers.
“We didn’t get anywhere close to that kind of pay raise for the people at the bottom doing more with less,” he said. “I think the increases should be distributed fairly across the board, and fairly is not something that’s two times what the average worker in the state of Ohio is receiving.”
The state also created a new pay step for non-union state employees, giving some at the top of their pay scale 9 percent raises in addition to the 2.5 percent across-the-board raise. Meanwhile, top pay scales haven’t budged since 2008 for union workers, according to OCSEA officials.
1.4 percent raises
Local unions — whose contracts are negotiated by the commissioners, sheriffs and trustees looking forward to fatter paychecks — have also seen pay concessions in recent years.
“We haven’t seen those wages for rank-and-file folks for 10 years,” said Joe Weidner, spokesman for Ohio AFSCME Council 8, which represents local workers in several area counties.
“In the last two budgets the local government fund has been cut in half twice. It was really decimated, and along with the inheritance tax that has put a lot of local governments in a financial bind.”
The I-Team analyzed data kept by the State Employee Relations Board on the more than 1,600 contracts local governments across Ohio have with local unions. In roughly half of the contracts, negotiated pay raises over the life of the multiple-year contracts add up to 5 percent or less. More than 200 contracts include no across-the-board pay raises in coming years.
Of course many of these employees still get raises, as collective bargaining agreements often include step increases and promotions of a couple percent each year until an employee reaches the top of his or her pay grade.
Base wage increases in union contracts statewide have gone up an average of 1.4 percent a year since 2008, according to annual wage reports kept by the State Employee Relations Board.
Sheriffs weigh in
“There’s no union that hasn’t had a raise in seven years,” said Butler County Sheriff Richard K. Jones who, if re-elected next year, will see his pay reach six figures for the first time in his decade as sheriff.
“You don’t attract qualified people to run for these jobs unless they get compensated accordingly,” he said.
Jones currently makes $94,691 a year, and has since 2008. If his pay kept up with inflation, it would be roughly $104,587. It will reach $104,396 in 2017 and will increase 5 percent each year for the next two years.
Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said that even with these raises, their pay pales in comparison with chiefs of much smaller police departments, highway patrol officers or even sheriff’s deputies with overtime.
Payroll records obtained by the I-Team show Springfield Police Chief Stephen Moody made $102,477 last year. The lowest paid Ohio State Highway Patrol lieutenant made $82,740. Six of Kelly’s employees made more than his $84,522 salary.
“I have a $15 million budget, four labor unions, 1,500 inmates on any given day,” he said. “I don’t get vacation time, personal time, comp time and people expect me to be always available and always on duty.”
Kelly’s pay will break six figures in 2019.
Raises for trustees
Greg Lawson, policy director for the conservative Buckeye Institute, agreed that public officials should get raises, but expressed concern that 5 percent raises through 2019 likely would outpace inflation.
“You have to have enough there to incentivize people to do it, but it strikes me those are larger than the inflation basis,” he said. “I think taxpayers have a right to say, ‘I understand there’s cost of living issues (for elected officials) but we have problems, we lose jobs, we don’t always get raises ourselves.”
Lawson also expressed concern about how pay is determined for Ohio’s almost 4,000 township trustees.
State law sets trustee pay on a per-day basis, but allows trustee boards to give themselves a salary of 200 days of pay instead of keeping track of specific hours worked. The majority of townships do this.
“I don’t know where the accountability is at all for that,” Lawson said.
Matt DeTemple, director of the Ohio Township Association, said trustees likewise haven’t had a pay raise in years. He said township trustees are more hands-on than many elected officials.
“They’re also out plowing snow and trimming weeds and maintaining cemeteries,” he said. “Most township officials don’t get into it for the money because it’s not a lot of money, but if you’re going to attract good people you need to pay them a fair salary for the work that they do.”
Township trustees and fiscal officer pay is set based on a township’s budget. The largest townships, with budgets of more than $10 million, pay their trustees $20,568. One trustee and fiscal officer in each township is up for election this year, so they will get a 5 percent raise if re-elected and another the next year.
The other two trustees will get a 10.25 percent pay bump until after their 2017 election.
The only elected officials whom the Ohio constitution allows to get a pay raise during their term is judges, who will get a 5 percent bump this year, and another 5 percent each year from 2017 through 2019.
This will bring pay for full-time common pleas court judges from the current rate of $121,350 to $147,600 in 2019. Municipal judges will go from $114,100 to $138,800.
“(This) brings Ohio’s judges into greater parity with the courts’ workloads and counterparts around the nation,” said Ohio Supreme Court Chief Maureen O’Connor, whose pay will rise from $150,850 to $183,400.
Ohio has the sixth-lowest paid judges in the nation, according to the National Center for State Courts, even though it’s the fifth-busiest court system.
Caseload records obtained by the I-Team, however, show common pleas court caseloads are down 16 percent statewide in 2014 compared to 2010, and municipal court caseloads are down 5 percent.
O’Connor said the role and responsibility of judges have expanded, putting new demands on them in recent years. Instead of presiding over arguments by attorneys, judges are increasingly called on to handle social issues in drug courts, veterans courts and mental health courts.
“Today’s judges are umpires, social services coordinators, parent figures, coaches, experts in both law and human behavior,” she said.
“It is the judge who ultimately must decide who goes to prison, who gets access to mental health services, which of two warring parents get the children, whether aging parents are competent to manage their affairs, whether a veteran with PTSD will receive treatment for the factors that might be driving aberrant behavior, and what will happen to a business’ intellectual property.”
One proposal that’s still on the table would eliminate the prohibition on other county and state officials from getting pay raises during their term, and could lead to pay hikes for state lawmakers and elected officials next year.
The Ohio Senate passed a bill that would ask voters to amend the constitution to create a Public Office Compensation Commission to recommend pay rates for elected officials across the state. The nine-member board would be appointed by the governor, the courts and both houses of the General Assembly.
The bill lost traction in the Ohio House. No hearings are scheduled for it, and it must pass by August to get on the November ballot.
But it may come back next year. It was sponsored by Ohio Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, who said it “takes the politics out of pay.”
State Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Twp., said during the recession pay cuts for lawmakers became a game of one-upmanship.
“There are legislators that (legislating) is their sole job and you don’t want a legislature that is comprised of wealthy people or people who are retired and have other sources of income,” said Coley, vice chair of the Senate finance committee. “You also want people from all aspects of Ohio.”
Coley, a Cincinnati attorney, said he thinks his current legislative pay is “fair.”
Mabe, with OCSEA, said a pay commission is a good idea as long as it’s transparent and numbers-based, not just a political smokescreen allowing politicians to indirectly raise their own pay.
Lawson said a fairer way to determine compensation would be to take the decision-making out of it altogether and tether lawmaker pay to the consumer price index, which hasn’t risen past 3 percent since 2011 and hasn’t risen past 4 percent since 1991.
“You don’t want to see folks getting more than inflation,” he said.