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Retired sheriff backs pay raises for 4 top posts in Erie County

A retired Erie County sheriff spoke out Thursday in favor of pay raises for four of the county’s top elected offices.

So did a Buffalo resident and a designee to the nine-member citizens panel that last month recommended pay increases of between 16 and 29 percent for the offices of county executive, comptroller, clerk and sheriff.

Aside from Comptroller Stefan I. Mychajliw – who vowed not to accept a raise – they were the only members of the public to weigh in on the recommended raises during a hearing conducted Thursday by the Legislature.

It was 18 years ago when the Legislature last approved salary increases for those offices. That’s too long, former Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins told lawmakers.

“I’m retired now 16 years, and I’m amazed when I hear that there’s been no salary adjustment for those four offices in that period of time,” Higgins said.

He added that problem goes back nearly four decades and advised the Legislature to take action on making those adjustments sooner than later. However, the Legislature’s Republican-aligned majority has gone on record against following the Citizens Salary Review Commission’s recommendations and, after Thursday’s hearing, three members of the majority said they had not heard anything that might sway their belief that most county residents do not support the recommended pay increases.

Buffalo resident Lynda Stephens said the proposed total annual increase of $77,305 for those raises is reasonable when weighed against the county’s annual $1.4 billion total operating budget.

“The commission’s salary recommendations are prudent, generally similar to salaries in other large counties and are less than some counties with substantially smaller populations,” Stephens said.

Her sentiments were echoed by commission member Laurie A. Buonanno, who stressed that she was speaking mainly as a Kenmore resident. While supporting pay raises for four of the county’s top elected offices, she and Stephens challenged the reasonableness of the current $42,588 base salary for Erie County’s lawmakers which, Stephens said, is $20,926 above the state average. The panel did not recommend raises for legislators.

Buonanno said the panel performed a statistical analysis of elected officials’ salaries for comparable counties in the state to calculate the mean and the standard deviation.

“We found that in Erie County, the county legislators are earning more than two standard deviations of the … mean for other comparable New York State counties,” said Buoanno, director of public administration at SUNY Buffalo State. “What does two standard deviations above the mean mean? Well, in layman’s terms, it’s absolutely off the charts.”

After the hearing concluded, Legislature Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, disputed Buoanno’s assertion.

“Erie County has the least amount of legislators in New York State,” he said. “We represent 86,000 people apiece. Yes, it may be a part-time position, but I really wouldn’t call it that because we’re working around-the-clock with our constituents.”

The Legislature will vote on the commission’s recommendations at its meeting next Thursday.