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Missoula County officials can't freeze pay, will take penny-an-hour raise insteadPosted on July 29

Missoula County officials can't freeze pay, will take penny-an-hour raise insteadPosted on July 29

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Go figure. In these days of financial climate change, you can't even freeze your own pay.

Not if you're a Missoula County official, at least.

Commissioners and eight other elected officials will get a penny-an-hour raise this fiscal year, and the proposed $100 million budget that's floating around will be adjusted upward $20.80 for each, after hitches in the commissioners' salary-freeze plan were uncovered this week.

"One of the complications is that there are certain employees whose salaries are statutorily tied to elected officials' salaries," Dale Bickell, the county's chief administrative officer, said Wednesday.

Those employees are the 47 sheriff's deputies. In a nutshell, if Sheriff Mike McMeekin gets no raise, they can't either, Bickell said.

That's not what the commissioners wanted at all when they set salary freezes for elected officials and department heads as one of their parameters in the budget-making process.

Their intent, as Bickell put it, was to "officially set the tone" in hard economic times. They also mandated a freeze on property taxes with the same message in mind.

The quandary was revealed Tuesday at the annual meeting of the elected officials compensation committee.

One thing led to another for the committee, which is made up of the three commissioners, four other elected officials and two citizens.

By a quirk in state law, if the sheriff's salary is frozen, he or she doesn't receive built-in longevity components, and thus neither do the deputies.

"So we didn't budget into the public safety fund that the sheriff's deputies would get the same increases as everyone else," said Bickell n again not what commissioners had in mind. "In order to facilitate that, we needed to adjust the sheriff's base."

Thus, the cent-an-hour increase for McMeekin.

But that brought up an issue of fairness. If the sheriff gets a raise, shouldn't the other elected officials get one too? And although the sheriff is the only one who by law receives longevity pay, it's county policy to incorporate it into all elected officials' checks.

Chairman Bill Carey said that while he and fellow commissioners Jean Curtiss and Michele Landquist had to accept the extra penny an hour, they could and would refuse extra longevity pay.

Bickell said when the smoke clears, the total cost of all the pay increases will be around $3,000. But it did lead to lively discussion at the compensation committee meeting about the ramifications of freezing elected officials' pay while employee salaries march on.

Andrew Czorny, chief financial officer for the county, laid out the preliminary budget for fiscal year 2010 at the first public hearing Wednesday in the courthouse annex. It'll be Aug. 25 at least before certified taxable values are received from the state Department of Revenue, which may or may not necessitate revisions to the budget.

A date of Sept. 2 has been tentatively set for the final public hearing, with adoption of the budget scheduled for a week later.

Citizens from a number of human services agencies took to the microphone Wednesday to describe the work of their agencies and thank the county for its contribution through its Poor Fund account. The account is budgeted for $854,000 this year, down from the $862,000 proposed a year ago.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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