Public officials may get first raise since 2008

Senate Plan Highlights:

* Ask voters in May 2015 to amend the Ohio Constitution to create a nine-member Public Office Compensation Commission.

* Commission would recommend pay changes by December 2015.

* Changes would take effect July 2016, unless 3/5th of the House and Senate vote to reject the changes.

* Commission subsequently would meet in even-numbered years to review pay and recommend changes.

House Plan Highlights:

* Statewide officers and lawmakers: cost of living increases would run Jan. 1, 2017 until 2023.

* Judges: 5 percent compounding increases for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and then COLAs for four years until 2023.

* Others: Board of elections officials would get 5 percent increases in 2015 and 2016 and a COLA 2017 to 2022. County officials’ pay would rise in 2015 and 2016, followed by a COLA in 2017 to 2022. Township trustees would see increased per diem rates in 2015 and a COLA would be applied for 2016 and after. Salaried trustees and fiscal officers would receive raises in 2015 and a COLA after that.

* Create a compensation advisory commission to recommend future pay changes for public officials.

State lawmakers are debating how and when 7,300 elected leaders from the governor to township trustees could get their first pay raises in at least six years.

The Ohio House passed a bill that boosts pay for elected officials, including for 132 state lawmakers who are currently paid $60,583 a year plus stipends for committee work. Pay increases for lawmakers and statewide officials would start Jan. 1, 2017 while increases for everyone else would begin Jan. 1, 2015. Most of the increases would halt in 2023.

The House passed the bill late Thursday, 56-24.

The Ohio Constitution gives the General Assembly authority over pay raises.

But the Ohio Senate voted 32-0 for an alternative plan that would ask voters in May 2015 to amend the state constitution to create a Public Office Compensation Commission, which would then recommend pay changes.

“Such an objective review process takes the issue out of the hands of politicians, allowing for a much more fair and transparent process,” said Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, the architect of the plan. Nationwide, 17 states have compensation commissions to recommend pay changes, he said.

The nine-member commission would be appointed by the governor, legislative leaders and the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, serve two-year terms, hold at least three public hearings, and deliver its first set of recommendations by December 2015. The recommendations would take effect six months later, unless the General Assembly by a three-fifths vote in each chamber overrides the amounts.

“It’s simple, it’s clean and it’s common sense. I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before,” Faber told his Senate colleagues.

It would also require House approval but state representatives have their own pay raise idea.

The House plan would bring back annual cost-of-living raises for lawmakers, governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and attorney general beginning in 2017 and increase judicial salaries, township trustee per diems and salaries, and county official pay beginning in 2015.

State Sens. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, and Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood, both said that the Senate and House plans could both be approved without conflict. Faber, however, brushed off that idea, saying there isn’t support for such a move.

When asked if lawmakers are fairly compensated for their part-time legislator jobs, Faber said he wouldn’t vote for a pay raise for lawmakers but believes judges, prosecutors and sheriffs deserve pay raises. He noted that he knows a new law school graduate whose starting salary exceeds that of Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor.

“That tells you you’re getting into a compensation divide,” Faber said. “You’ve got sheriff’s whose deputies literally make more than the sheriff because the sheriff’s salary is fixed, the deputies’ is not. And that’s a concern to me. You’ve got prosecutors who are under compensated as well. Certainly, when it comes to law enforcement and judges, there is a strong argument to be made that their compensation needs to be reviewed. But I’m not sure it applies to everyone.”

Local officials react

Public officials say the version matters little as long as the end result is fair and compensation is brought more in line with similar public sector jobs.

“The reality is that there ought to be a good evaluation and study for what’s appropriate wages for the jobs that are being assigned and they ought to be evaluated based on their own merit as to what that job is,” said Montgomery County Juvenile Court Judge Nick Kuntz. “Any time you get a broad-based committee to look at what’s an appropriate salary structure, I’m satisfied with that. It could be a citizen’s group. It could be anything deemed a reasonable, fair approach.”

Kuntz said those in private law practices with experience can earn three to four times the annual salary of an Ohio common pleas court judge.

“Most judges take judgeships regardless of what the pay situation is,” Kuntz said. “At the same time you don’t want to lose good professionals on the bench because their salaries are frozen.”

Stephen T. Metzger, Clark County treasurer, said nearly every statewide group representing county offices including auditors, commissioners, coroners, recorders, sheriffs, treasurers and trustees are behind legislation raising pay for the state’s elected officials.

“They are all aboard. It’s probably the first time in years where they all say this is something we need to do. It’s a joint effort by all the elected officials.”

It’s the Ohio General Assembly’s duty to set salaries but legislators find doing so often unpalatable, according to Metzger who said he doesn’t have the luxury of not taking legal action when a property owner is arrears in taxes.

“Everybody would always say it wasn’t the right time for a salary increase,” he said. “I’ve been treasurer for 25 years and I think I’ve had close to 15 years with really no increase in compensation.”

Greg Lawson, statehouse liaison and policy analyst at the Buckeye Institute, a conservative think-tank, said some type of commission looking at the pay of state officials is preferable to legislation that puts increases “on autopilot.”

Lawson said the Senate version would be more protective of taxpayers’ money because future raises would go through a more rigorous process.

“We’re sensitive to wanting to have good people there, but we need to keep a pretty good leash on this so you don’t have a 10-year salary schedule and it just keeps going irrespective of where the economy is,” Lawson said. “We should be cognizant that we need to be competitive but we need to also be careful that we’re not overshooting ourselves and that we maintain flexibility so that the pay we do give to public officials is commensurate with where we’re at economically.”

Ohio’s judges should probably get a pay raise, Lawson said.

“Judges are definitely underpaid relative to even some of the other Midwestern states,” he said.

However, automatic raises for positions like township trustees that are paid an annual salary concern Lawson.

“I’ve heard multiple times from multiple people in different townships that very often those that take the annual salaries don’t really work the 200 days. So you are essentially overpaying already,” he said.

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