State auditor right; commissioners’ pay raises done wrong

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County commissioners are not like other county employees. They are elected officials who comprise the county’s legislative body. One of the commissioners’ roles is to set salaries.

But if commissioners set salaries, what is to stop them from raising their own salaries outrageously?

The state constitution.

It has been interpreted to prohibit elected officials who set salaries from adjusting their own salaries during the term in which they are serving. Commissioners can raise the pay for the office they hold, but cannot begin collecting the higher pay until they stand for election.

It’s a reasonable approach.

Yet, the Garfield County commissioners apparently don’t see it that way.

The commissioners voted to raise their salaries in 2012 in relation to the increase of the cost-of-living index. The commissioners believe their pay raise is constitutional because the decision to trigger the automatic pay raise was made in a previous term.

However, the state Auditor’s Office, in a report released last week, disagrees, saying the commissioners acted inappropriately. The report notes the state constitution prohibits increases in compensation for elected officials during their current term in office, and that this restriction “extends to automatic cost-of-living increases when the exact amount of the increase cannot be known in advance.”

The concerns by the Auditor’s Office are valid. While the automatic cost-of-living increase was done in the spirit of being open and honest with the public in this case, this approach could be abused in different circumstances.

When people run for elected office, they do so knowing exactly how much (or how little) the job pays. In fact, the filing fee is linked to the salary — it’s “one percent of the office’s fixed annual salary.”

The Garfield County prosecutor responded to the auditor’s findings, saying the county did not believe the commissioners were violating state law and that the procedure in place ensured commissioners were treated fairly in cost-of-living adjustments.

Commissioners are held to a different standard and to different rules or laws in many ways. This stems from the fact commissioners are elected by the people and they answer to the people.

Nobody believes the Garfield County commissioners were out to pull anything over on the taxpayers. That’s not the point. The procedure for increasing pay was put in place for the good of the entire state, which likely includes folks who are not as trustworthy as the Garfield County commissioners.

Garfield County officials have simply made an honest mistake.

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