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Shaw advises against mid-term COLAs

by Kim Fickett
Landmark reporter

Don’t give cost of living allowances (COLAs) to elected officeholders mid-term. Any cost of living allowances should be accumulated and only granted to each elected official upon the beginning of a new term of office.

Platte County Counselor Bob Shaw rendered that opinion to the county commission during open session on Thursday. His legal opinion may soon become a point of reference for other counties in the state.

“I have prepared this legal opinion in response to your letter of Oct. 24, 2005, requesting my response to the following question: ‘Is the acceptance of a mid-term cost of living adjustment by an elected county official constitutional?’,” said Shaw.

After providing a history of past cases and arguments that have somewhat revolved around this issue throughout the state, including the county’s own suit against former county commissioners Diza Eskridge and Michael Short, Shaw concluded his presentation to the commission with his opinion.

“It is my opinion . . .that granting cost of living adjustments to elected county officials on an annual basis violates the terms and the purpose of Article VII, Section 13 of the Missouri Constitution,” stated Shaw.

“As the implementation of cost of living adjustments on an annual basis requires specific annual discretionary decisions by the County Commissioners to declare and fund those adjustments, it would appear that these decisions would be considered the type of actions which fall within the purpose of Article VII, Section 13 as described in the Folk decision. Instead, it would appear that the appropriate procedure would be for any cost of living adjustments approved by the county commission after authorization by the salary commission to be accumulated and compounded in order to be granted to each elected official upon the beginning of a new term of office.”

The request for Shaw’s opinion came about after associate county commissioners Jim Plunkett and Tom Pryor walked away from the salary commission meeting in October with a lot of unanswered questions.

As reported in The Landmark, Presiding Commissioner Betty Knight, First District Commissioner Tom Pryor and Second District Commissioner Jim Plunkett signed a letter to Shaw on Monday, Oct. 24 requesting his legal opinion.

“There was a lot of concern from last week’s meeting that we get to the bottom of this and we felt the right thing to do was to ask for this written legal opinion from our county counselor and have it presented in (administrative session),” said Plunkett.

That concern came after Shaw was unable to give a clear-cut answer when questioned by Plunkett at the salary commission meeting if the county’s practice of giving COLAs to officeholders in the middle of their terms was legal.

“I wanted our county counselor to answer some additional questions and provide a framework that we can work in and legally defend,” said Pryor.

Plunkett said now that the county has received Shaw’s written and verbal legal opinion, he is more confident of what the county should be doing in the parameters of the legal system.

“It’s not a matter of whether I’m happy or not, I just want to know that we’re doing the right thing,” stated Plunkett. “I just wasn’t willing to accept the status quo and I wanted to be sure if I was going to sign off on it as a commissioner that I was comfortable with the way it was being done.”

According to Pryor, he thought the county had experienced the last legality issue regarding mid-term pay raises with the dismissal of the Short case months ago.

“I would have been pleased if we didn’t have to deal with this issue, but it became apparent it needed to be dealt with because there were certain decisions and policies that the county commission needed to deal with and needed answers to,” said Pryor.

Now that Shaw has given his legal opinion, the commissioners and salary commission will need to decide where the county proceeds from here.

“I think he researched it very well and it seems like there are issues on either side and because the county counselor has made the recommendation, I think we should follow it,” said Knight.

Knight said they may take a survey at the upcoming officeholder’s meeting on Nov. 15 to see if the salary commission wants to rescind its previous motion made on Oct. 18.

Shaw suggested in his letter: “One question that may be raised in light of this opinion is the question of whether the salary commission must meet to modify its prior action. I do not believe that such action is absolutely necessary. As I mentioned previously, the approval of a cost of living adjustment is a two-step process. The salary commission merely acts to authorize the county commission to implement the adjustment. The county commission itself must take action to approve an adjustment for elected officials, determine the amount of the adjustment and determine when the adjustment should become effective. Accordingly, if the county commission should choose to approve a cost of living adjustment for elected officers, it could stipulate in its approval that the adjustment would become effective only upon the beginning of a new term of office for each official.”

If the salary commission decides to hold another meeting and rescind its previous motion, they have until Dec. 15 to hold another meeting.

“I don’t know what the final answers are going to be but we’re asking county counselor Bob Shaw to take the lead on the statutory issues,” said Pryor.

Plunkett agreed, stating that while no decisions have been made about collecting past mid-term COLAs, it will be under consideration.

“It’s something we’re going to take under review,” said Plunkett.

If the commission would decide to pursue the recapture of previously paid mid-term COLA’s to the officeholders, it could potentially affect all members of the salary commission.

The Platte County Salary Commission is comprised of 12 elected officials. Those serving on the commission are: Knight, Pryor, Plunkett, Collector Donna Nash, Sheriff Richard Anderson, County Clerk Sandy Krohne, Public Administrator Terry Edwards, Assessor Lisa Pope, Auditor Sandra Thomas, Treasurer Bonnie Brown, Recorder of Deeds Ida Cox and Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd. However, Zahnd would not be affected because his salary is set by state statute.


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