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Public hearing on county pay raises may be moot exercise

There was probably never a groundswell of public support for giving raises to elected officials, even in Erie County’s top four elected offices, none of which have seen a pay increase in nearly two decades.

Nonetheless, residents will get a chance tonight to weigh in on recommended pay raises of between 16 and 29 percent for the county executive, comptroller, clerk and sheriff when legislators convene a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. in the fourth-floor Legislature chambers at Old County Hall, 92 Franklin St.

Regardless of what the public has to say, it’s unlikely the pay-hike recommendations of a citizens panel convened for the first time since 2004 will go anywhere because there is no will in the Legislature to grant pay raises for any elected officials, according to Legislature Chairman John J. Mills.

“I think the biggest hang-up on this whole thing is the amount of the increases that the advisory board recommended,” said Mills, a Republican from Orchard Park.

The Legislature’s Republican-aligned majority went on record in opposition to the Citizens Salary Review Commission recommendations immediately after the panel released its eight-page report a month ago.

As it result, it is a moot point as to whether minority Democrats would mount an opposition. They’re not expected to.

“If we don’t have six votes, why put yourself in that position and be in the line of fire when you don’t have to be there?” said Legislature Minority Leader Betty Jean Grant, D-Buffalo.

Democratic Legislator Patrick B. Burke of Buffalo said he would favor the raises if the votes were there.

“Eighteen years without a pay raise is a long time and, obviously, it has devalued those offices a pretty significant amount and I think that’s a concern,” Burke said.

Though the County Charter calls for the salary commission to be impaneled every two years, the last one was convened in 2004. Its recommended raises of 35 to 45 percent for the four offices and lawmakers were rejected by the Legislature.

The commission impaneled this year did not recommend an increase in the $42,588 base salary for lawmakers. It did recommended the county executive’s salary go up to $126,400, from $103,248; the sheriff’s to $102,400, from $79,092; the county comptroller’s to $98,750, from $80,613; and the county clerk’s to $91,800, from $79,092.

Burke said maintaining 1996 level salaries for elected offices removes the incentive for professionals to run for them.

“In the legislative positions, working class people are not able to take the job because it doesn’t pay enough anymore,” Burke added.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard — who earns $40,613 a year less than the undersheriff — recently came under fire for taking a part-time job at M&T Bank from mid-January to early July, which then called into question whether his annual salary might be too low.

“Quite frankly, he’s underpaid,” Mills said of the sheriff. “I mean, most of his officers are making more than he’s making.

“I don’t think there’s any issue with giving one or two or three or all four (a raise), but I don’t think there’s the will from the legislators in general — including on our side of the aisle — to go ahead with those,” Mills said.