An independent Erie County citizens panel has unanimously recommended raises for the county executive, sheriff and comptroller.
But in a nod to defeated recommendations of the past, the Citizens Salary Review Commission did not suggest raises for all county officials, nor did it recommend raises as high as what prior panels endorsed.
Commission members opted for a much more conservative approach than in past years, with hopes their current pay recommendations for elected positions will lead to serious consideration instead of the past pattern of being pronounced "dead on arrival."
"I feel we found a way to break the deadlock, and for the Legislature to really have a fruitful discussion on how one increases salaries of elected officials in Erie County," said Laurie Buonanno, commission chairwoman and public administration professor at SUNY Buffalo State. "I think we walked away saying, 'I think this is what taxpayers can bear.' "
This commission recommended:
- The county executive's salary be raised from $103,248 to $118,376.
- The sheriff's salary increase from $79,092 to $89,343.
- The comptroller's salary be raised from $80,613 to $94,037.
- No initial raise for the county clerk, who earns $79,092.
- No raise for county legislators, who earn $42,588 plus stipends for the majority and minority leaders and chair.
- Future raises for the county executive, sheriff, comptroller and clerk should be tied to routine, incremental increases based on some fraction of the consumer price index.
The recommended salaries represent raises ranging from 13 percent to 17 percent and, if approved by the county Legislature, would be the first raises for county elected officials in 22 years.
The raises, which would increase the budget by $38,803, would not take effect until the current term for each elected position expires.
Erie County elected officials have not received a raise since 1996. Two attempts by a Citizens Salary Review Commission to raise the salaries of county politicians in 2004 and 2014 were deemed too costly and inappropriate given the lagging local economy. Both were shot down as "dead on arrival" by legislators.
The earlier recommendations – which called for raises of more than 20 percent and 30 percent – were often influenced by citizen commissioners from the private sector who considered it fundamentally unfair for elected county leaders to earn less than their subordinates and department heads.
Top, non-elected administrators are entitled to the same percentage raises received by the county's white collar union, sometimes earning tens of thousands more than their elected superiors. For instance, 80 Erie County employees earned a higher salary than the county executive last year, according to payroll records. That includes the county commissioners and Deputy County Executive Maria Whyte, who earns $50,000 more than County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
But while all citizen panels have wrestled with the matter of "internal equity," this year's panel requested input from county legislators on both sides of the aisle who had more pragmatic attitudes about what is politically realistic.
In the past, elected officials were quick to distance themselves from any suggestion that they were "voting themselves a raise." Even former County Executive Joel Giambra, who empaneled a Citizens Salary Review Commission in 2004, suggested that what the commission recommended should be "adjusted downward." He ultimately asked the entire report be shelved.
This time, Buonanno said, the Citizens Salary Review Commission compared the salaries of elected county officials to averages across the state. They looked at overall state averages, as well as averages that excluded wealthy downstate counties. They also looked at salary averages for counties with similar populations or similar median income levels, and salaries as measured against the consumer price index.
"It’s the first time a comprehensive data analysis has been conducted on salaries of elected officials in Erie County," Buonanno said. "There have been salary commission reports, but this is the first comprehensive analysis that looks at the correct data and looks at the data from many perspectives. We feel we’ve established a template for future commissioners. No matter what the Legislature decides, we have that."
The commission balanced fair compensation and serving taxpayer interests, she said. After much discussion, the group chose to recommend salaries based on how much elected leaders were paid in communities with similar median incomes to Erie County. Those average salaries were the lowest of all comparisons the commission reviewed.
No raises were recommended for legislators or for the clerk because those salaries were already above the median salary for similar positions in counties of comparable wealth, Buonanno said.
"I think the commissioners left with a lot of goodwill that they served the taxpayers well," she said.
The commission comprised nine members, five of whom were appointed by the county executive and the remainder appointed by legislators and the county comptroller. The members included academics and representatives from both the private and public sectors. Three committee members, including Buonanno, served on the last Citizens Salary Review Commission in 2014.
Buonanno said that aside from soliciting input from legislators in the middle of the process, the committee pursued its work over a six-week period without outside influence from elected officials.
Poloncarz said that while he has no say in what the Legislature does with the report, he supports the recommendations. At a press conference Thursday on a different matter, he referred to commissioners standing beside him and noted they all had received raises and made more than him.
"It’s just gotten to a point where it’s just so out of whack," he said. "It just makes no sense, is the best way to put it."
He added, "I just want everybody to think about what they were making in 1996, especially if they are in the same job. There’s been a big change."
The report now moves to the county Legislature for consideration. The Legislature has up to a year to decide whether to approve or reject the commission's recommendations. Legislators said Friday that they are not dismissing the report and need more time to review it.
"I think it’s high time that we actually review what elected officials are making, and as much as we want our elected officials to be qualified to represent us, we also want them to be valued, so that’s a discussion we should have," said Majority Leader April Baskin, D-Buffalo.
Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said he's still concerned about the size of the raises recommended. He also said that at one point, members of the commission were considering offering legislators raises as a "bribe" to get them to support the salary recommendations.
"I’m willing to look at it and listen to more with what they have to say," he said. "But I have a hard time agreeing to raise the salaries at that level when the general public isn’t seeing that kind of raise."
Read the commission's full report below.