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The ‘elephant in the room’: How will commissioners set their own pay?

Wednesday, July 7, 2021 by Seth Smalley

At the June 29 meeting of the Commissioners Court, Todd Osburn, county compensation manager, presented elected officials’ salaries to commissioners. The item will be brought before the court again in late July, at which point commissioners will decide between three options: either match elected officials’ pay raise percentages to those of classified employees; match elected officials’ pay to the market average in surrounding counties; or continue with a 2018 wage plan that had been interrupted by the pandemic.

Osburn said the purpose of the meeting was to give commissioners “some options to consider, hopefully get the discussion started, and hopefully get some consensus on the court. But we’re not asking you to vote today.”

For comparison, he presented market level salaries for the relevant positions across the Central Texas region. While the market average for the county judge (of nine Texas counties) was $165,703, the county judge in Travis County makes $156,630 per year – 94 percent of the market average. Travis County commissioners make 90 percent of the market average, or $135,662 annually. The sheriff makes $164,692 annually, 98 percent of the market average.

A plan was created in 2018 to close the salary gap between elected officials from Travis County and other Texas counties over a three-year period.

“The county judge at the time had noticed that a significant gap had opened between Travis County and our peers and she asked the court to consider closing the gap at that point,” Osburn told commissioners. “A third of the gap was closed in 2019, a third of the gap was closed in 2020, but in 2021 Covid happened and Commissioners Court didn’t do any pay increases.”

Osburn proposed three options for pay increases for elected officials. Either they could vote for elected officials in the county (including themselves) to receive a 2.5 percent raise each year, as county classified employees do, or simply receive a salary commensurate to the Texas market average for the elected position. A third option was also presented, in which the incremental raise increases from the 2018 plan would be continued, based on a 2018 pre-pandemic salary market.

For county commissioners, option three would be technically the most advantageous – and also the most expensive, as the 2018 market salaries for elected officials were markedly higher. The average salary for Texas county judges, for example, was $172,316 in 2018. (Today it’s about $165,000.)

Between the first two options – a set percentage increase or matching the mean market salary – the second would be more profitable for commissioners, at least in the near term, as the market average is currently about $15,000 higher than their current salaries. While a 2.5 percent raise would increase commissioners’ salaries by about $3,000 to nearly $140,000, there’s still about a $10,000 discrepancy between the two options. For the county judge, the discrepancy is only half that, but the second option remains more profitable.

Commissioner Brigid Shea stood in favor of option one, the cheapest and least self-serving option in the near term.

“It’s extremely, extremely uncomfortable. Nobody wants to vote themselves a big pay increase. But I would favor having the elected pegged to the classifieds, so that everyone’s treated the same,” Shea said, also drawing attention to an existing “grievance process” in which employees who perceive their pay to be insufficient can advocate for a raise.

Commissioner Ann Howard, agreeing with Shea, pointed out that option one would bring most elected officials’ salaries to the market regardless – with the exception, of course, of the county judge and commissioners.

“I’m also just curious to this practice of looking to the market for elected officials’ salaries. I get it. It’s the elephant in the room. We have to set our salaries; it’s our responsibility. But it’s not like we’re recruiting other folks from other counties to live and run for office here,” Howard said, asking about other possible ways to set salaries.

The item will likely be brought to court again July 20, according to Osburn.

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