After holding pay increases for elected officials to a penny last year, Missoula County on Thursday cited a regional study on comparable pay and agreed to boost wages this fiscal year by $2.76 an hour.
The increase impacts 11 elected positions within the county, thought it’s also tied by Montana state law to any pay increases for patrol and detention center deputies with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office.
County CAO Chris Lounsbury said state law requires that county’s put together a compensation board each year to review the rate of pay for elected officials in the next fiscal year.
“One of the things they review is the compensation paid around the state to other elected officials,” Lounsbury said. “Every other year the state of Montana conducts a salary survey of elected officials across the state. We look at that survey as well.”
The state survey includes the governor, District Court judges and others.
“We try to, as a group, come up with the best compensation package we can that makes sense from a fiscal standpoint, but also to make sure that elected officials who often oversee departments – and all of these officials oversee departments in one way or another – are compensated for the work they do.”
Last year, citing the pandemic and its economic impacts, Missoula County held all pay increases for elected officials to $.01. But now, Lounsbury said, the market has changed and many counties are making adjustments post-pandemic.
“The uniform base is paid to all elected officials regardless of office,” Lounsbury said. “We’re looking at the state, and if you average that out over 2,080 hours, it puts us on par with that average state increase, which is around $5,000 to $6,000 for those elected official offices.”
The uniform base pay for elected officials in Missoula County will increase $2.76 an hour. County commissioners will see their total salary increase to either $99,800 for the longest serving commissioner and $94,600 for the other two.
The County Superintendent of Schools will earn more than $105,000, the county attorney $142,600, and the Clerk of District Court around $11,700.
“The state survey looks at a five-state region including Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas,” Lounsbury said. “We try to compare ourselves to the market we’re in.”
State statute adds a number of nuances to how pay is scaled among elected officials. Among them, a Justice Court judge who presides over a Court of Record, such as Missoula, earns a percentage of what’s paid to a District Court judge.
The pay earned by sheriff deputies and detention workers also is tied to the pay of elected officials. Their pay cannot increase unless the county elected officials increase their own earnings.
“We’ve been in a position that we’ve been paying a lot of overtime at detention because we’re never fully staffed,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It’s a tough job and our wages haven’t been as competitive as they need to be. Hopefully this will decrease what we pay in overtime by being a bit more fully staffed.”
Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said the Legislature this year and in years past has “made this nexus” between elected officials and what detention and deputy sheriff positions pay.
He said the state policy was outdated and needed amending as it relates to a “government of general powers,” such as the county, versus a self-governing body like the city.
“You are tied by statute on what you can do, and they have to be tied together,” he said. “We’re shackled to somewhat unwieldy requirements, and one might argue antiquated ways of doing business and setting salaries.”