County officeholders favor mid-term COLA increase Constitutionality of the action called into question; county counselor expected to research the matterby Kim Fickett and Ivan Foley Landmark staffConfusion and uncertainty. Those words might best describe the atmosphere at a meeting of Platte County’s elected officeholders at a meeting of what is known as the Salary Commission on Tuesday afternoon.
Talk of what has been done in the past, whether what was done in the past was legal or constitutional, and what should be done in regard to future cost of living increases for officeholders all played into the discussion.
A new statute passed by the Missouri legislature this year allows the county’s salary commission to establish parameters for all officeholder salaries. The new law tosses out the former maximum pay scale that had been established by the state. Even though technically that maximum allowable compensation no longer exists, it was referred to in a motion passed on a split vote Tuesday.
Following discussion, Platte County Collector Donna Nash motioned that “salaries for Platte County officials remain at 100% of the allowable compensation pursuant to Sections 50.343 and 57.317 RSMo as previously adjusted annually by the county commission for cost-of-living and further move that the county commission continue to be authorized to adjust the compensation of county officers effective January first of each year as a cost-of-living adjustment which shall be in the form of a percentage which shall be the same for all county officers, not to exceed the percentage increase given other county employees.”
The Platte County Salary Commission is comprised of 12 elected officials. Those serving on the commission are: Presiding Commissioner Betty Knight, First District Commissioner Tom Pryor, Second District Commissioner Jim 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.
Zahnd did not take part in the meeting because his salary is set by state statute. Brown was out of town and did not attend. Cox, who has indicated she is retiring and will not seek reelection, also did not attend.
By a vote of 7-2 from the Salary Commission—with Pryor and Plunkett voting no—the motion passed allowing elected officials’ salaries to remain at 100% with the opportunity for a COLA (cost of living adjustment) if approved by the county commission.
“The Salary Commission themselves cannot decide (the amount of) a cost of living increase,” said Krohne. “We give the county commission the authority to give a cost of living if they so choose to.”
Plunkett questioned County Counselor Bob Shaw about the legality of the motion and what the county has done regarding COLA’s for several years with elected officials, stating he doesn’t want to get caught in a situation like the county has in the past (referencing the unconstitutional mid-term pay raise with former First District Commissioner Michael Short).
Krohne pointed out that the county has been issuing these COLA’s to their elected officials in mid-term for many years.
“Just because we’ve been doing it that way doesn’t make it legal,” stated Plunkett. “I don’t want to get in a situation where I’ve been tied to something like what’s been done in the past.”
He continued, “My concern is, legally is that what we’re supposed to be doing?”
With many unclear and uncut answers in Missouri statutes, Shaw was unable to give a clear-cut answer. While declining to give a strong voice on his own interpretation, Shaw said the constitutionality of mid-term cost of living pay increases has never been ruled on by the courts. Nor has the state attorney general offered an opinion on the matter, Shaw said.
“An argument could be made either way (on the constitutionality of cost of living pay increases for officeholders being accepted in the middle of their terms),” Shaw remarked.
The Salary Commission has until Dec. 15 to rescind the action taken Tuesday if Shaw later advises the motion to be illegal or unconstitutional.
The salary commission would then reconvene at a later date to rescind the motion and review the issue.
According to the county auditor, with the exception of Zahnd, Anderson, Pryor and Plunkett, each county officeholder makes $63,840 annually.
State statute says the associate commissioners must be paid $2,000 less than the presiding commissioner, so Pryor and Plunkett earn $61,840. Anderson is paid $69,250 for the position of sheriff and Zahnd’s prosecutorial salary as set by the state is $96,000.
It was pointed out the county commission is not bound by the salary commission’s motion. Commissioners could decide not to grant budget authority authorizing any cost of living pay increase effective for officeholders in next year’s budget.
In previous years, the county has authorized the same percentage cost of living pay increase for officeholders as the county employees have received.