All but one of the Kanawha and Putnam county officials approved for 12 percent raises effective this month have accepted the increases.
Ora Ash, deputy state auditor in charge of local government services, said the state auditor’s office hasn’t yet received documentation showing all the county officials in the state who have accepted the raises. But so far, he estimates eight out of every 10 qualifying officials have taken the increases.
The increases are for county commissioners, county clerks, circuit clerks, sheriffs, assessors and prosecuting attorneys.
The Legislature passed Senate Bill 1005 this year, which granted the pay raises on two conditions: the state auditor must certify that a county’s finances can absorb the increases and the officials currently in office must file individual written requests for the increases with their county clerk’s office.
Based on the relatively high assessment of property in their boundaries, Kanawha and Putnam are considered Class 1 counties, for which the Legislature has approved the highest salaries. County commissioners in Kanawha and Putnam now make the equivalent of $41,395 annually, up from $36,960; sheriffs and assessors, $50,266 up from $44,880; and county and circuit clerks, $62,093 up from $55,440.
Putnam Prosecuting Attorney Mark Sorsaia will now make $108,192, up from $96,600. But Kanawha Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants said he would turn down his almost $11,600 annual raise to help Kanawha fund a special prosecutor appointed to handle domestic violence cases. Plants is not allowed to handle those cases while he himself faces charges of domestic battery and violation of a protection order.
Vivian Parsons, executive director of the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia, said 70 percent of county commissions told the association it should lobby against the pay increase bill passed this year. But Parsons said organizations representing other county officials were in favor.
Putnam Commissioner Joe Haynes said he and Commissioner Andy Skidmore told the association in the fall to oppose the bill. Commissioner Steve Andes said he told the association he wanted it to stay neutral on the raises. Regardless, all three accepted the raises and argued they deserved them.
“I think you’d be foolish not to take a raise, I mean we’ve all got families,” Haynes said. “It’s not a question of whether you need the money, it was just the timing.”
Haynes said he didn’t think economic conditions warranted raises this year, and said non-elected Putnam employees have only received small pay increases for the past few years.
Kanawha Commission President Kent Carper said Kanawha was the only county in the state not part of the association at the time, but he said the commission fully supported the raises for the other elected officials, like County Clerk Vera McCormick and Circuit Clerk Cathy S. Gatson, who have been with the county for years but haven’t gotten raises since the last pay increase around 2006. Carper said he didn’t care either way about the increase for commissioners, but said he accepted it this year because he got flak from other officials for trying not to take the last increase.
Ash said the auditor’s office decided Braxton, Brooke, Calhoun, Clay, Gilmer, Hampshire, Mason, McDowell, Mercer, Mineral, Morgan, Roane and Webster counties did not have sufficient finances to handle the increases.
Parsons said counties opposed the raise because of poor economic conditions, and when the bill appeared it would pass, she said the association lobbied for a provision that would ensure counties could afford the raises. She said she would’ve preferred the county commissions vote themselves on the issue, rather than having the state auditor’s office, which she said knows less about a county’s finances, approve the counties and the elected officials accept the raises.
All newly elected officials must accept the higher raises, and even those officials who deny the raises must accept them upon re-election, Ash said. So any denying official could only stay with their original salary for the remainder of their terms, which are four years for sheriffs, assessors and prosecuting attorneys and six years for county commissioners. Skidmore, the most recently elected Putnam commissioner, could have chosen to forgo his raise until his possible re-election in 2019.
Andes, who is currently running for re-election and will start his new term Jan. 1 if he wins, said the requirement to take the increase upon re-election is partially why he accepted.
“And I think people do work, they work hard, they do a good job, and same with all the other elected officials,” Andes said. “Just because we’re public employees doesn’t mean we can’t have a raise.”
Reach Ryan Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.