Should Shelby County Raise Officials’ Salaries? 

The old bugaboo of pay raises for public officials rose again at Monday's regular meeting of the Shelby County Commission, and, perhaps because of the proximity in time to Halloween, enough members of the commission were spooked by the prospect of raising their own salaries and those of several other elected county officials that the proposal — actually, three separate proposals in as many formal ordinances — went nowhere.

Technically, the votes taken Monday were on second reading, and there is one more final reading to come, presumably at the commission's next meeting, scheduled for November 13th, but nobody needs a crystal ball or consultation with either a pollster or a necromancer to see that the ordinances are doomed to defeat in two weeks' time, as well.

In point of fact, there is a commission majority in favor of the pay raises, but the county charter prescribes that issues of this kind require a supermajority of the entire commission.

That would be nine votes, and the ordinances fell short Monday by identical votes of seven for, four against, and one abstention. The seven aye votes belonged to six of the seven commission Democrats — Willie Brooks, Walter Bailey, Justin Ford, Reginald Milton, Eddie Jones, and Van Turner — and one Republican, Steve Basar. The four naysayers were Republicans Terry Roland, David Reaves, George Chism, and commission Chair Heidi Shafer. (GOP Commissioner Mark Billingsley would later ask that his vote be added on as a fifth no.) The one abstainer was Democrat Melvin Burgess Jr., who, as a declared candidate for Assessor in 2018, might have been concerned that, as a would-be tax collector for the county, his vote would draw special attention from opponents in next year's election.

Under the proposed pay hikes, the salary of the county mayor would rise from $142,500 to $172,000; the sheriff salary from $116,995 to $154,890, and those of county clerk, trustee, register (all now pegged at $109,810), and assessor ($110,465) to go to $126,000. The commissioners' salaries (currently $29,100, with the chair getting $31,100) would go to a uniform $32,000.

The votes essentially fell along predictable lines, with Bailey, speaking for the Democratic contingent of aye voters, pointing out the obvious, that the cost of living was continuing to rise and wondering if the objectors were contending that the pay of officials could never rise accordingly. Roland protested with insistent righteousness that commissioners should serve the public, not themselves, and he and Reaves professed themselves open to a public referendum to change the charter and tie future raises for the affected county officials to pay raises for rank-and-file county employees. As Democrat Turner noted, that was basically a way to put things off for the present.

For the future, such a referendum is not a bad option. Though prospects for passage might be remote, they are no worse, and could be better, than the existing odds for such proposals on the commission itself. We know all the political arguments against pay raises for public officials, and we regard it as unfortunate that the arguments for them cannot be evaluated on their own merits, the same way that pay matters out in the regular marketplace are, or should be.

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