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EVEN THE harshest critics of Erie County government must agree with County Executive Gorski that having the county's top officials making less than their chief aides is "bad management."

Or, as Sheriff Thomas Higgins put it, "It just doesn't make sense."

Nevertheless that is, or soon will be, the case with four countywide elected officials.

Already, Gorski's $69,815 salary is $3,484 less than that of the deputy county executive; Higgins' $52,977 salary is less than the $57,091 paid the undersheriff; and Comptroller Alfreda Slominski's $52,977 salary is $9,023 less than that of the deputy comptroller. And while Clerk David Swarts' $53,900 salary currently puts him $4,900 ahead of his deputy clerk, Swarts too could be overtaken in the next two years unless something is done to rectify these structural inequities.

The pay gaps result because the elected officials have their salaries set by the County Legislature and those salaries have not been increased since 1985. Their top aides, on the other hand, belong to collective bargaining units that generally are granted the same percentage increases as those given to county unions.

With the salaries of the four elected officials effectively frozen the past four years while unions continued to negotiate increases, it did not take long for the aides to overtake their bosses on payday.

Despite the predictable outcry from some, any time a politician gets a raise, a reasonable pay boost for the four elected officials could be justified on cost-of-living grounds alone. Few other workers have gone
four years without a pay hike and inflation affects elected officials just as it does everyone else.

Moreover, in some cases the jobs have become more difficult since the last pay increase. For example, the clerk's office was handed the task of handling the county pistol permit program and the Legislature expanded the comptroller's duties to improve fiscal accountability in county government.

But in addition to raises being warranted on those grounds, fairness and the integrity of the bureaucratic structure demand that those at the top who bear the most responsibility and have the most demanded of them should be compensated accordingly.

At the same time, however, Legislature Minority Leader Mary Lou Rath is correct in noting that the county should examine the process whereby aides' salaries automatically increase as union salaries rise. These high-level, second-in-command jobs should be looked at more independently, or the current inequity will simply repeat itself in a few years even if the situation is corrected now.

And of course, any raises granted the elected officials should be done in accord with the intent of a voter-approved reform -- which the Legislature last year brazenly gutted -- that called for such raises to be voted on before an election and to take effect after residents had a chance to decide the fate of county officials at the polls.

Although that original measure no longer is on the books, county officials owe it to the taxpayers who approved it in good faith to abide by its spirit when considering any salary increases.

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