County delays salary decision on elected officials, sheriff

The Cascade County Compensation Board met March 27 to start discussing the cost of living and wage adjustments for elected officials and non-union staff.

Currently, state law requires that a county compensation board meet to make recommendations on salaries for the county treasurer, clerk and recorder, clerk of district court, county superintendent of schools, sheriff, county attorney and others. The law requires that county commissioners be paid the same amount as the county clerk and recorder, plus $2,000.

Typically, the board meets later in the year, but several factors caused some officials to request an earlier meeting.

County public safety levy includes pre-trial funding

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said the sheriff’s deputies association is negotiating their contract and since deputy salaries are set as a percentage of the sheriff’s salary, he was hoping to get the board to make a recommendation to help that process.

He’s also trying to promote deputies and those moves and salaries are tied up in the contracts.

County board votes to increase pay for elected officials, non-union employees by 4.5 percent [2022]

The compensation board opted to recommend a 20 percent raise for the sheriff and then reconvene later this year to consider the cost of living adjustments for the other elected officials.

County Commissioners convened in a special meeting shortly after the compensation board meeting to take action on the recommendation regarding the sheriff, but there was some confusion over when the meeting had been publicly noticed, since it requires 48 business hours, according to county officials.

The upcoming county budget year runs July 1 through June 30, 2024.

Commissioner Joe Briggs suggested approving a cost of living increase for the sheriff that would be effective July 1 and an additional increase from that COLA to a total 20 percent increase effective Jan. 1, 2024.

But, during that meeting, Mary Embleton, former county budget officer, said she was concerned about the public notice for the meeting and suggested that commissioners delay the decision.

Commissioner Rae Grulkowski, who was elected in November, said she didn’t understand beforehand what the meeting was about or the details of the discussion.

“Apparently I’m not informed completely,” she said and that she’d feel more comfortable delaying the decision, which was reset for 1 p.m. March 29.

In 2021, the Montana Legislature passed a bill that decouples the compensation for deputy sheriff’s from that of other elected officials and makes an automatic 1 percent longevity increase for deputies annually.

The longevity increase for deputies was previously only granted when the base pay for county elected officials was increased.

The compensation for deputies, under state law, is a percentage of the salary paid to the county sheriff.

The law, which went into effect Oct. 1, 2021, increases the percentage range for deputy compensation and allows county commissioners to increase the sheriff’s salary above that of other county elected officials.

County finalizes raises for elected officials, deputies, non-union employees

Officials also considered how they’d cover the cost of salary increases since the county public safety levy approved by voters won’t start generating revenue until the fall when it’s added to the tax bills.

Briggs said this year’s COLA is 8 percent, based on the consumer price index from the U.S. Department of Labor.

But since local governments can only raise taxes by one-half of of the average rate of inflation for the last three years, under current law, the official inflation rate for the state is expected to be 2.56 percent, according to the county.

Last year, the compensation board increased salaries for elected officials and non-union employees by 4.5 percent when the consumer price index rate was 4.7 percent.

If the compensation board opts for the 8 percent cost of living adjustment for elected officials and non-union employees, that will cost an additional $817,150.

This current base salary for county commissioners, treasurer, clerk and recorder, clerk of court, sheriff and justices of the peace is $69,524.35.

Commissioners, clerk of court and the justices of the peace get a statutory addition of $2,000. The clerk and recorder, sheriff and treasurer get a statutory addition of $5,032, according to the county numbers.

The county attorney’s base salary is $127,248.92.

comp board March 2023

This year’s base combined base salary for deputies is $2,231,20209.

The combined base salary for non-union employees this year is $5,288,353.16.

The county is also estimating an 11 percent increase for health insurance premiums to $900 per employee per year for the county’s insurance costs. The county pays 100 percent of the employee-only premiums for health coverage.

Jeff Mora, county human resources director, said the county has 342 employees on its insurance for a cost of about $2.6 million annually and is expecting a significant increase in the upcoming budget year.

Mora said the unions watch the compensation board decisions as they negotiate their contracts.

comp board 3 March 2023

The compensation board decisions only affect elected officials and non-union employees, but unions tend to watch the COLA the board gives to those employees for their negotiations.

Deputy salaries are also tied to the sheriff’s salary, so the board decision has an impact on that department and the county’s base budget, Mora said.

He said the county often isn’t in a position to increase wages to keep up with the private sector due to budget limitations and laws governing public finance.

Briggs said another challenge to setting county salaries for the upcoming budget year, which begins July 1, is that the Legislature is currently in session and law changes could significantly impact the county finances.

One of those bills being considered is SB 511, which would restrict a local government’s ability to increase taxes.

As proposed, the bill would require that 75 percent of newly taxable values go to tax reductions on previously taxed property, according to county officials.

In Cascade County, commissioners have used the newly taxable property to make up for the inflationary cap on their mills.

Under the current law, municipal governments are limited by state law on how much they can raise taxes annually and the rate is half of the three year average rate of inflation. That typically doesn’t generate much in terms of new tax revenue for the city, but as the national inflation levels rise, those figures could also increase.

SB 511 would replace that with a 4 percent inflation cap and an overall five percent cap on tax revenue growth, according to county officials.

Briggs said that for counties with growth, the bill could be positive since they can take the full rate of inflation rather than half.

He said he’s been working with the governor’s office and the bill sponsor to get the bill to a place that’s workable for counties.

He said it was a different financial landscape when inflation was 1.5 percent versus the current 8 percent.

The bill is still in the Senate and has not yet made it to the floor for a vote and transmitted to the House for consideration.

Briggs said that in last week’s hearing on the bill in Helena, the governor’s office singled out Cascade County as the only one of the major counties not overspending, “but we’re going to get punished along with everyone else.”

He said another bill would address local government expenditures is also in the hopper and if both are passed, it would be problematic for local governments.

Briggs said he’s working with state officials in an attempt to adjust SB511 and get that passed and kill the expenditure bill.

He said the county budget process has begun and county departments are starting to put in their budget requests.

He said Cascade County tends to conservatively estimate revenues and is tight with expenditures so most years, their revenues exceed expenditures.

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said he’s looking at salaries for the collective bargaining negotiations and also since county voters approved a 14 mill public safety levy in November.

Slaughter said the levy included sheriff’s wages and they were looking to increase those by 35 percent.

Briggs said he was comfortable with a 20 percent increase now and they’d adjust further once the levy revenue starts coming in. He said they’d also want to build a reserve for the public safety fund as well, though it’s not required.

County Attorney Josh Racki said he’d be asking to increase the salary for his position since the pay will increase for his deputy attorney’s with the public safety levy funding.

Briggs said they can’t do that because the county attorney’s salary is linked to the other elected officials, but Racki said it’s not.

“That’s a different interpretation, but you are the county attorney,” Brigg said and added that he wasn’t sensitive to needing to make more than employees supervised since most make more than commissioners.