SOUTH BEND — Pacific County’s elected leaders will have fatter wallets starting next year, except the three commissioners, who agreed to forgo their 2018 raises.
Commissioners Lisa Ayers, Frank Wolfe and Lisa Olsen decided earlier this year to give up a $104-a-month increase in 2018. Instead, they chose to continue to earn their current salary of $5,201 a month or $62,412 next year.
“That’s a decision they made to help with the budget,” Financial Analyst Paul Plakinger said.
The commissioners are scheduled to take public comments on the 2018 county budget — which includes a 1 percent property tax hike — at 10 a.m. on Dec. 12 at the courthouse annex in South Bend, 1216 W. Robert Bush Drive. They’re expected to approve the budget on Dec. 21, Plakinger said.
The commissioners in 2016 approved raises of about 2 percent per year for the county’s nine elected officials through 2021. The increases were intended to keep pay in line with cost of living adjustments made for the county employees who are represented by labor unions, officials said.
Salaries for elected leaders have gone up every year since at least 2014.
The county assessor, auditor, clerk and treasurer will each earn $5,305 a month or $63,660 annually in 2018. The four officials and the three commissioners are authorized to increase their salaries about 2 percent a year, up to $67,548 by 2021. Whether they take the annual raises is up them.
The commissioners agreed to give up their raises in 2018, but they did not discuss pay increases that were approved for 2019 through 2021.
The sheriff will make $6,628 a month or $79,536 next year. By 2021, the annual salary for the county’s top law enforcement officer is set to increase up to $84,408.
The prosecutor will earn $133,086 next year. Pay for the county’s head attorney could increase by more than 2 percent a year through 2021. It includes a set amount that’s approved by the commissioners plus half the salary of a superior court judge, which is set by a state citizens’ commission.
Washington’s superior court judges make $165,870 a year. Their pay is scheduled to go up to $169,187 on Sept. 1, and to $172,571 on the same date in 2019.
District court judges are earning $157,933. Their salaries are set to increase to $161,092 in September and $164,313 the next year.
Incomes lag for others
Local elected officials generally earn less than their counterparts in other counties. However, they make more than average for the area.
County residents earned an average of $21,923 from 2011 to 2015, according to U.S. Census data.
The median household income in 2016 was $43,168 countywide, the latest federal statistics show. The middle income for the county remained stagnant or dropped by up to 1.7 percent from 2007 to 2016.
According to recent estimates, about 3,578 people are living in poverty across the county. That’s 17 percent of the population, compared to 11.3 percent statewide, and 12.7 percent across the U.S.
The federal government defines poverty as an annual income of less than $12,060 for individuals or $24,600 for a family of four. The county has had a higher poverty rate than the state and the nation every year for at least two decades.
Wrangling financial woes
Leaders in the cash-strapped county have been working together since March on ways to trim annual expenses by about half a million dollars without service cuts. They started reducing the approved 2017 budget after the county didn’t receive any revenue from private timber sales during the first quarter of the year.
The county’s financial management staff has been warning officials about overspending since 2014.
“There’s always hope things are going to improve but they haven’t,” Plakinger said. “It’s frustrating for sure.”
The county spent about $500,000 more than it brought in last year. It was on track to exceed its income by the same amount in 2017 but, Plakinger said, the first-quarter blow to the budget brought the year’s deficit up to about $750,000. After the cuts, the county is expected to spend about $350,000 from savings to cover day-to-day expenses for 2017.
“The plan in 2018 is to have a balanced budget,” Plakinger said.
He expects next year’s expenses to match the county’s estimated income, both at an estimated $10.2 million.
Back in the black
The county is cutting its staff by about 10 full-time employees to help get the budget out of the red in 2018.
Most of the reductions are being made by not filling positions after workers retire or take other jobs, Plakinger said. However, hours are being cut for a handful of county staffers.
After voters turned down a proposal on the November ballot to raise the tax on real estate sales, county leaders decided to include a 1 percent property tax hike in the proposed 2018 budget. Plakinger said they’re trying to avoid scaling back services.
“We’re just going to have to see if the cuts work without taking more drastic measures,” he said. “It’s going to be an experiment.”