Compared to most of their counterparts in Wyoming’s larger counties, Park County’s assessor, clerk, treasurer, clerk of district court, sheriff, coroner and county attorney have been underpaid.
Park County commissioners took a step toward closing that gap on Tuesday, voting unanimously to raise the salaries of the six elected positions, starting next year.
Following the recommendations of the current officeholders, the commission nearly doubled the pay of the county coroner to $40,000 and raised the pay of the county attorney by 11.3 percent, to $96,000. In both of those instances, commissioners suggested higher salaries were needed to attract quality candidates in the future.
Pay for the sheriff, meanwhile, will jump by 4.7 percent, to $82,000, and salaries for the county clerk, treasurer, assessor and clerk of district court will increase by 4.8 percent, to $80,000. Those increases were less than half of the roughly 11 percent bumps the current officeholders recommended.
Commissioners decided to keep pay for their own positions flat, at $36,175.
“I think the county commissioners are fine where we are,” said Commissioner Joe Tilden.
State law requires the commission to set the county elected officials’ wages before the filing period for the primary election opens on May 17. The new pay scale won’t kick in until after the general election, when the officials are sworn in to new terms in 2019. Commissioners were required to set wages for the full four-year terms and they built in $1,000 per year increases (starting in 2020) for every position outside of the coroner and the commission.
Commissioner Lee Livingston predicted that the board will get an “onslaught of public criticism” for approving the raises, despite next-to-no private citizens being in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Just for future reference, we’re in here discussing elected officials’ salaries that the constituents of Park County elect, and I don’t see but two of the public sitting here,” Livingston said. “So when we get fried out there …”
County coroner and county attorney
By far the most significant change was to the county coroner’s compensation.
The position has been getting $300 per call, which amounted to an average wage of $21,750 over the past two fiscal years. Current coroner Tim Power recommended going up to a $40,000 salary and, on Tuesday, commissioners agreed.
“Don’t we need a full-time job, full-time pay for this thing?” Commissioner Jake Fulkerson rhetorically asked his colleagues.
“... It’s a very important job,” Commissioner Tim French said later in the discussion, adding, “It’s not technically full-time … [but] you might get a call at 3 in the morning, 4 in the morning, you never know.”
Power, who’s unsure whether he’ll seek re-election, wondered at a meeting last month whether another person would be willing to do the job at the current pay.
On call 24/7, the coroner and their deputies investigate around 75 deaths per year in Park County. If an autopsy is needed, the body must be taken to a pathologist in Sheridan, and a single call can last days.
“Part of the reason I can handle it 97 percent of the time is because I’m retired now,” said Power, the former director for Ballard Funeral Home in Cody.
With someone else, “if you’re going to offer it at $20,000 a year, that’s a part-time job. Now that means they’ve got to have a full-time job somewhere,” Power said, adding, “How many employers are going to allow them to be gone for four days, if it [a call] happened to be that?”
He said many people don’t realize how much time is involved in the job and the difficult situations coroners get involved in.
“I don’t want to see someone run … for the coroner’s office, and in a year say, ‘This is a bunch of beans; I’m not willing to do this for that [amount of money] anymore,’” Power said last month.
Commissioners mentioned similar concerns before their Tuesday vote.
“... You’ve got to have a big enough salary to try and attract somebody,” said Commissioner Joe Tilden.
The Park County and prosecuting attorney will also receive a larger, roughly $10,000 raise next year.
French said County Attorney Bryan Skoric “is not being paid at the level he should be for the workload he’s under” — noting his office handles as many criminal and civil matters as the Big Horn Basin’s other three county attorney’s offices combined.
Beyond praising Skoric, commissioners expressed concerns about whether the current $86,000 figure would be enough to draw another qualified candidate.
“... It’s going to be difficult to find somebody,” said Commission Chairman Loren Grosskopf. He favored bumping the county attorney’s pay up to the $100,000 maximum, saying, “If there’s one person that’s critical, it’s that position.”
The rest of the commission, however, preferred to go with the $96,000 figure that had been recommended.
Other elected officials
Much of Tuesday’s discussion surrounded data and recommendations Park County Assessor Pat Meyer presented last month on behalf of Sheriff Scott Steward, County Attorney Skoric, Clerk Colleen Renner, Treasurer Barb Poley and Clerk of District Court Patra Lindenthal.
The proposal — which would have put the sheriff’s salary at $87,000 and the clerk, assessor, treasurer and clerk of district court at $85,000 — aimed to match the average wages for the state’s 14 largest counties.
Treasurer Poley said the entire group of elected officials worked on the proposal and supported it.
“We feel like we’re only asking for the average and not even quite the average of comparing to other counties our size,” she told commissioners Tuesday. “So we felt like we were proposing a very fair increase.”
In putting the sheriff’s salary at $82,000, commissioners noted that the figure is very similar to the Cody police chief’s wages.
Commissioner Tilden called the sheriff “grossly underpaid” right now, while Commission Chairman Grosskopf openly wished his colleagues would pick a figure closer to the $87,500 average for Wyoming’s larger counties.
According to the presentation, compared to the 13 other counties that contain 10,000 or more pieces of taxable property, only Park County’s commissioners are making an above-average wage.
State law caps the maximum salaries for the elected positions at $100,000, and several counties are at the limit.
“We don’t want the max, we want to stay conservative, but we just want to be paid a fair amount as these positions in other, [similar] counties,” Meyer said last month. He added that the elected officials weren’t all that comfortable advocating for raises that, if they’re re-elected, would be their own.
Had commissioners adopted the elected officials’ proposal, the added wages and corresponding benefits would have cost taxpayers somewhere in the neighborhood of $90,000 in 2019. By adopting smaller than recommended raises for everyone except the coroner and county attorney, the extra cost will be closer to $58,000.
Meyer’s PowerPoint presentation for the proposal included specific slides about the qualifications and accomplishments of Skoric, Steward, Meyer, Lindenthal, Poley, Renner and the five commissioners under the heading, “Experience Counts.” However, Commissioner Livingston pointed out (as did a subsequent slide), that “the salary is not for the person, it’s for the position.”
With the exception of two commissioners, all of the county’s positions are up for election this year.