New law lets officials set their own pay 

Imagine sitting down with a handful of your colleagues and a couple of neighbors to set your own salary. That’s exactly what Ravalli County elected officials have been doing in the last few weeks. In fact, all elected county officials in Montana have either done the same, or will do so in the weeks to come.

Thanks to a new law approved by the 2001 Legislature, all counties are required to review—and if necessary, increase—the salaries of elected county officials.

The law requires county governments to establish salary compensation boards comprised of three county commissioners, the county attorney, three other elected county officials and two citizens. Those boards were required to review the existing salary structure for elected officials and come up with revisions by Aug. 1. Most Montana counties have already done so.

The new law revised the existing salary law for elected officials, a complex formula tied to a base salary and each county’s population. The old law, dating back to 1991, based the salary of elected officials for the state’s most populated counties at $25,000, plus $10 per every 100 county residents, plus another $2,000 for county commissioners and sheriffs.

Salary compensation boards are allowed to tinker with that formula by either leaving the salaries as they were, or by granting raises. The boards are not empowered to decrease salaries.

The compensation board in Ravalli County has established a three-year salary plan, the upshot of which is a salary increase of 15.43 percent for all elected officials over the next three years.

Skip Rosenthal, Ravalli County’s human resources director, doesn’t know how much 15.43 percent means in real dollars, but he says the compensation board worked to stay within the confines of the budget. “The commissioners really want to keep things fair and in line because the budget is tight,” he says.

Under the salary revision, commissioners in the state’s fastest-growing county will now make $43,061 annually. Last year, commissioners earned $37,627. (Apparently, they never received the extra $2,000 a year allowed by the Legislature.) While allowing elected officials to set their own salaries may sound a bit fishy, Gordon Morris, executive director of the Montana Association of Counties, says it was a way to get county salaries out of the hands of the Legislature and into the hands of local government and local citizens. “The gist of it is,” says Morris, “we’re never having to go before the Legislature like we did every 10 years.”

In Ravalli County, salaries will be reviewed annually over the three-year term to make sure they don’t exceed tax revenues.

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