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New law: officials can reduce salaries

Elected officials pay: ‘Big elephant in the room'

Clerk of Courts Al Fraser - $95,328
Property Appraiser Tim Sweat - $95,328
Tax Collector Gene Harvey - $95,328
Elections Supervisor Nita Crawford - $78,468
Sheriff Joey Dobson - $103,924*
School Superintendent Sherrie Raulerson - $95,328
County Judge Joey Williams - $134,280 **
County commissioners - $29,440
School board members - $25,231

* Sheriff Dobson, a “double dipper,” draws an additional $72,558 annually in retirement benefits for a total compensation of $176,482, plus health insurance and other benefits. Shortly after he became eligible for the twin payments, the law was changed to prohibit it for future enrollees, both elected and otherwise, under the state’s retirement system.
** Judges are not included in the new statute authorizing voluntary salary reductions.

Amid all the back and forth in recent weeks about how much the county should contribute to its retiree health plans and, on the state level in recent months, how much state employees should participate in retirement plans, no one speaks about the “big elephant in the room.”

That would be the salaries of elected constitutional officers.

Since 1973, they have been set by the state in a cozy system that officially was enacted to “standardize” pay throughout Florida based on a county’s population.

Behind the scenes, “associations” of elected officials — lobbyists, really — worked closely with legislative staffs to make sure their clients were well taken care of.


Legislators, for the most part, acquiesced to the population formulas to keep peace at home among often-influential local officials who could make trouble at election time.

The law’s chief benefit was it allowed officials, many with pay at multiples of a county’s average per capita income (in Baker County, that’s a little more than $20,000) to say, “My salary is set by the state. I don’t have anything to do with it.”

That won’t be true much longer.

Before the weekend’s close of the 2011 Florida Legislature, both the House and Senate passed bills that, in effect, give local officials – elected constitutional officers and board members — the ability to lower their salaries.

Governor Rick Scott is expected to sign the legislation and it’s effective July 1.

So, how big a slice of the public spending pie in Baker County is currently carved off for elected officials’ salaries — the five constitutional officers, the county judge and 10 board members (county commission and school board)?

How about $971,339? (That includes the county judge’s salary of $134,280, which is not affected by the new provision).

And the total doesn’t include pay-ins for very generous retirement and health insurance benefits, along with the county’s share of the federal tax burden. Retirement rates are set by the state and unaffected by the recent legislation, and local governments already had control over health insurance benefits.

Actually, school board members in all of Florida’s 67 counties have had the power since 2009 to reduce salaries below the population-based guidelines and, since last year, the statutory pay is calculated as the lesser of the population-based formula or the starting salary for beginning teachers with a bachelor’s degree.

The new law does not intrude on existing statutes that exempt officials in charter (home rule) counties. There are 20 charter counties, including neighbors Duval, Clay and Columbia.

It also does not impede a county’s freedom to negotiate pay for school superintendents — as long as they are appointed. And that is the case in 25 counties, mostly the more populous ones like Duval.

So for Baker County, this means all locally elected officers, with the exception of the county judge, now have the option to take a look at their pay checks and calculate whether they’re worth what Tallahassee says they are.

It will be interesting to see next election cycle if the new option wiggles its way into campaigns, particularly if challengers promise to do the job for less if elected. And would that, in turn, ignite a “bidding war” that would drive pay levels downward?

Time will tell.

Officials, of course, can still opt for the population-based formula. But the old excuse that pay grades are “out of my hands” is, well, out the window.

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