Several speakers expressed support for recommendations by an independent citizens' panel to raise the salaries for several Erie County elected positions — increasing the likelihood that the County Legislature will approve raises for the positions of county executive, sheriff and comptroller.
Elected officials should not have to pay an undue price for their public service, said Andrea Súilleabháin, executive director of Partnership for the Public Good, a community-based think tank.
"A higher salary will encourage more and better candidates to run for office," she said at Thursday's public hearing, which was lightly attended.
She added it can level the playing field between wealthy candidates who don't need the money and lower-income candidates for whom a salary would represent their entire family income. She pointed to research showing higher salaries result in greater competition for public office and make elected officials more eager to represent constituents' interests and pursue citizen-friendly policies.
"More seats go uncontested when legislative pay is lower, which again gives voters fewer choices," she said at the public hearing Thursday.
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.
This commission recommended:
• Raising the county executive's salary from $103,248 to $118,376.
• Raising the sheriff's salary from $79,092 to $89,343.
• Raising the comptroller's salary 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.
• Tying future raises for the county executive, sheriff, comptroller and clerk to routine incremental increases tied to the consumer price index. Over the past 10 years, the average annual CPI has swung from minus .4 to growth of 3.4 percent.
The raises would not take effect until the current term for each elected position expires. Neither the sheriff nor comptroller are up for election this year.
That means the county executive position would be the first to benefit from a raise. The salary increase for the county executive post would amount to an additional $5,000 next year.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz will officially kick off his reelection campaign Saturday.
He does not yet have an official challenger, though Legislator Lynne Dixon said Thursday she is considering running against him.
"I don't want to shut the door on it," she said.
County Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns said he agrees with the commission's recommendations that he receive no initial raise, and stated that no elected official should receive a raise unless the County Legislature agrees to term limits for these elected seats.
"Our job as elected officials is to put the taxpayers first and not our own personal bank accounts," he said.
Chris Stone, a member of the Citizens Salary Review Commission, spoke in favor of the commission's recommendations, saying they are reasonable, researched and fair.
"There is a distinct difference between being fiscally conservative and being a curmudgeon," he said. "We implore you to set aside politics and do the right things. This is the right thing, and now is the right time."
The salaries recommended by the commission 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.
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.