Those in Erie County's top elected positions won't have to wait decades for their next pay raise.
The Legislature voted 6-5 Thursday to approve raises for the county executive and three other countywide elected positions. Lawmakers also approved automatic annual raises tied to the consumer price index for the positions of county executive, county comptroller, sheriff and county clerk. The pay for these positions has not increased in nearly 23 years.
A slim majority of lawmakers backed the recommendations of the Citizens Salary Review Commission.
"This is how it should work," said Legislature Chairman Peter Savage, D-Buffalo. "Rather than trying to make up 23 years, which would have a greater fiscal impact, they allowed for a more modest increase and created a structure that would not allow salaries to fall out of balance again."
He added, "It's not popular. I can see that. But we are charged with the responsibility of providing the best possible government we can."
The Legislature's Republican-supported minority caucus voted against the measure, calling automatic raises tied to the consumer price index "in perpetuity" irresponsible.
Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, pointed out that if a consumer price index provision existed the last time raises were approved for elected county leaders, the county executive would now draw a salary of more than $180,000, far more than what the citizens panel currently recommends for the position.
All Democratic legislators, except for Amherst Democrat Thomas Loughran, voted for the raises. City of Tonawanda Republican Kevin Hardwick, who joined the Democratic caucus this year, also voted in favor of the commission's recommendations.
• The Citizens Salary Review 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 3.4 percent.
The raises will not take effect until the current term for each elected position expires. Neither the sheriff nor comptroller is up for election this year.
That means the county executive position will be the first to benefit. The salary for the county executive will increase $15,128 next year. Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has already kicked off his re-election campaign.
Members of the minority caucus sought to eliminate the provision tying future raises to the consumer price index. Lorigo said passing the consumer price index provision essentially means "raising salaries every year until the end of time."
Legislator Edward Rath III, R-Amherst, said, "This is expensive, this is uncertain, and this is unaccountable."
Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams suggested that automatic raises be tied to the consumer price index provision for a limited period of five or 10 years, but that recommendation failed.
Savage, who moved the recommendations to the Legislature floor, defended the raises and their connection to the consumer price index, saying it allows for future growth "on a minimal basis" for the county's chief executive, chief fiscal officer and chief law enforcement officer.
"If you look at the inequity after 23 years of stagnation, you have police chiefs in small villages or even officers in small villages making more, significantly more, than the chief law enforcement officer for Erie County," he said.
The measure does not include raises for county legislators.
"That is something I would not have supported," Savage said.
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. Instead, it recommended raises based on its research of other communities of similar population and wealth.
Poloncarz has previously expressed support for the raise recommendations, pointing out that his department heads earn more than him. Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw has remained neutral about the commission's work, saying Thursday that the raise will not apply to him because he plans to run for Congress. Clerk Michael "Mickey" Kearns has said he does not oppose the recommendations but wanted them considered with term limits for elected, countywide seats.
At a lightly attended public hearing, several speakers previously expressed support for the recommendations, saying raises would encourage better candidates to run for office and even 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.
Mark Poloncarz made the Legislature Democrats (on a pure party-line 6-5 vote) slam through pay raises for Erie County politicians. They voted NO on real property tax cuts in Dec and YES to raise Poloncarz’ Paycheck. Pathetic! See you in November. pic.twitter.com/OQncBUs5mh
— Nick Langworthy (@NickLangworthy) February 21, 2019
Unlike recommendations made in 2004 and 2014, the Citizens Salary Review Commission compared the salaries of elected county officials to averages across the state, concentrating on communities with similar populations and wealth. They looked at overall state averages, as well as averages that excluded wealthy downstate counties and salary averages for counties with similar populations or median income.
In doing its analysis, the commission determined that county legislators are well paid, compared with legislators in counties of similar wealth, and recommended no changes or automatic future raises for them.
Republican Party Chairman Nicholas Langworthy wasted no time in blasting members of the Democratic caucus and Poloncarz for their support of the raises, while voting down a budget proposal to cut property taxes.
"Pathetic!" he said in a tweet. "See you in November."