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VOL. 128 | NO. 236 | Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Commission Debates Pay for County Offices

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Commissioners appear to have another deadlock similar to the one that spilled over from 2011 into 2012 on drawing new district lines for the 13-member body.

This time the issue is what to pay those holding six countywide elected offices once all of the votes are counted next August in the county general elections.

The only item that had a seven-vote majority at a special meeting Monday, Dec. 2, was the second of three readings of an ordinance to keep the annual pay of commissioners at $29,100.

Commissioner Mike Ritz proposed dropping the pay by $1,000 before withdrawing the amendment.

The commission then voted down an amendment that would have raised the pay of the Shelby County mayor and sheriff and also voted down the main motion that would keep the mayor’s annual pay at $144,500 a year and the sheriff’s at $115,000.

The commission also voted down the third ordinance that would have raised the pay of the Shelby County clerk, trustee and register above the current $107,975 a year each position pays as well as a boost in pay for assessor from the current $108,617 a year.

The pay raises for the six countywide positions were recommended by county Chief Administrative Officer Harvey Kennedy who said the proposals were based on what CEOs in county governments of similar size are making.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Shelby County Sheri ff Bill Oldham have said they are not seeking a pay raise. Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir has specifically said he does not believe the pay for his position should be increased.

The commission is trying to set the salaries by the end of the year. But several members expressed doubt that there will be seven votes in two weeks to approve either keeping the pay the same or raising it for the countywide positions on third and final reading.

The issue is an intersection of complex changes in some but not all countywide offices made in a set of 2008 changes to the Shelby County Charter approved by voters and a basic debate about raising the pay of elected officials the same year that the county property rate went up.

Commissioner Terry Roland called it “politics 101.”

“The people in my district are going to be upset if they get a raise when property taxes went up,” he said, equating the hike in property taxes to a failure by county government to lead as effectively as it should.

“Some of us are really living in a fantasy world,” countered Commissioner Walter Bailey. “People who serve in government have families to feed.”

Bailey called the criticism of the pay raises a “fiscal illusion” by conservatives on the commission.

“All they do is espouse ideology about fiscal conservatism,” he added. “Our governor’s a multi-millionaire. … Are those the kind of leaders we want – people who are affluent? Let’s get real.”

“Public service isn’t supposed to attract people for the money. The county does not have to turn a profit.”

–Heidi Shafer, County Commissioner

Commissioner Heidi Shafer said setting pay for the elected leaders based on what other Tennessee cities like Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga pay amounts to “myopia.”

She questioned how different the average income levels are in those three Tennessee cities compared to Memphis.

Shafer also said if the national economy shows more evidence of recovery she might be willing to consider a modest pay raise.

“I support anything that makes us competitive,” said Commissioner Justin Ford as he questioned the commission’s annual salary for what is defined as a part-time job.

“I don’t look at it as a part-time job,” he said. “Let’s be competitive across the board.”

Commissioner Steve Basar said county government is “nowhere near – not even a stone’s throw” to paying adequately for what the countywide officials do.

“We need to find a way to reward good work,” he said, adding that $150,000 is not much money when comparing it to what people in the corporate world make.

Shafer, however, said there is a big difference between the functions of government and private business.

“Public service isn’t supposed to attract people for the money. The county does not have to turn a profit,” she said. “Our having lower-paid executives is a type of leadership. … I just really cannot get into a cryfest because somebody’s not making $150,000. And the mayor is not asking for it.”

The commission is setting pay levels for the first time for the offices of assessor, trustee, register and clerk because for the first time they are considered officers in the County Charter instead of in the Tennessee Constitution. The switch to charter offices from constitutional offices was among the charter changes approved by county voters in 2008.

Meanwhile, judicial clerks remain constitutional offices because they are part of the state court system.

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