Law gives panel chance to equalize pay for officeholders

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Missouri lawmakers this year gave Cape Girardeau County officials another chance to put most elected officeholders on an equal pay scale.

A new law that took effect Monday contains several provisions dealing with county government issues specific to one county or another. For Cape Girardeau County, the issue is whether the county treasurer and the public administrator are worth as much as the recorder of deeds and the auditor.

That issue has caused distress for the officeholders in the past. The salaries of elected county officials are under the control of the Salary Commission, a body that meets every two years to set the pay for upcoming terms of elected officials.

All 13 county officials sit on the commission. The commission has declined on two occasions, once in 1997 and again in 2004, to bring the pay of the treasurer up to the level of other officeholders.

Those rebuffs led former treasurer Bill Reynolds to declare he had been "cheated out of about $50,000 in pay" after the commission met in December 2004.

This year's bill, which will govern a Salary Commission meeting in December 2007, will be the last time lawmakers are asked to interfere in local salary decisions, Presiding Commissioner Gerald Jones said.

"What we are trying to do now is equalize things as they are today," Jones said. "I went to great lengths to try to get that accomplished, and the only way it could happen was through the legislature."

Salaries for some officeholders are set by law. For example, the law requires that Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle receive the same pay as associate circuit judges, which is $96,000 a year.

In other cases, the law sets a floor for salaries but allows compensation to climb because of cost-of-living adjustments. In Cape Girardeau County, the presiding commissioner, assessor, collector, recorder of deeds and auditor each receive $61,026 a year. The treasurer and public administrator each receive $52,785.

The new law will prevent the kind of bickering seen when Reynolds sought more pay, Jones said. When he went to the legislature this year, Jones said, "I asked them to help one more time. I said we would never bother them again, and they asked 'can we count on it?'"

Treasurer Roger Hudson, elected in 2004, said he has not pushed for the pay change. "It is really not about me," he said.

Some county officeholders believed a law passed in 2005 covered the equal pay issue, but Swingle said it did not, Hudson said.

"The wording wasn't right for what they intended to do," Hudson said.

335-6611, extension 126

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