Auditor pushes pay raise for county officials

SOUTH BEND — St. Joseph County Auditor Pete Mullen earned $48,500 in 2010, about $24,000 less than his counterpart in Elkhart County and about $29,000 less than the auditor in Allen County, which includes Fort Wayne.

Based on population, the two-term Democrat and former South Bend city controller earned less than any other auditor in the state, according to a survey by the Association of Indiana Counties.

And he is not alone in that regard.

County council members ($12,600) are tied for last in terms of pay based on population, and county commissioners ($36,070) and the county treasurer ($45,300) sit alone at the bottom, according to the survey, in which 72 of 92 counties participated.

Commissioners and council members are considered part time, and the treasurer and auditor full time.

Not considering population, all four positions rank within the top 17 in the state in terms of pay, with both the board of commissioners and county council better compensated here than in all but seven other counties.

Still, based in part on the information contained in the AIC survey, Mullen is spearheading an effort to increase pay for elected county officials.

In February, he sent a letter to the commissioners — Robert Kovach, Dave Thomas and Andy Kostielney — requesting the board pass a salary ordinance with an effective date of 2015 or later.

"What I’d like to do is get salaries up like five years from now," he said, so that elected officials would not be voting to give themselves a pay raise.

Doing so would not only bring the county in line with other counties, he said, but also help it to attract a greater number of qualified candidates for elected office.

"To get good people, whether Democrat or Republican, you have to pay a decent salary," he said.

As an example, he pointed to his decision, during the 1980s, to abandon public office for a short time and return to the private sector, which he said was based on money.

"The reason I left as city controller was because I could not afford to keep my kids in the schools they wanted to go with," he said. "Otherwise I would have loved to remain a public servant."
 

Best of the best

 

That said, support for a pay increase appears to be lacking.

Citing the current economic climate and generally stagnant wages among non-elected county employees, Kostielney and Thomas both said now is not a good time to consider raises.

"Raises for elected officials should be the last thing we consider," Thomas said. "If at some point we have the money to give elected officials raises, then we should look at lowering taxes."

"If we are ever able to increase salaries, it would be from an employee standpoint first," Kostielney said, "then elected officials."

County council President Rafael Morton agreed.

"Before that would even be a consideration," he said of providing raises to elected officials, "I think there needs to be some consideration for employees first."

In addition, all three said compensation typically is not an issue, or at least not the primary issue, when considering whether to run for public office.

"I like to think that whoever runs for public office is not running because of the salary," Morton said. "I like to think they run for public office because they have a real and passionate desire to serve the community."

"I think most people realize that when they work for the government, there’s more stability" than in the public sector, Thomas said, "so it’s a tradeoff.

"And hopefully," he added, "everybody gets a good feeling in their heart that they are serving the community and making a good, positive difference."

At the same time, Kostielney and Thomas both acknowledge that, in some cases, compensation does play a role in the ability to attract qualified candidates.

"Some of the positions are underpaid," Thomas said, "and if you want quality people in a position, you generally have to pay them for that."

For his part, Mullen acknowledged that now might not be the best time to consider a pay raise for elected officials.

"But the point I’m trying to make is that, five years from now, the economy is going to be better," he said, "and even though we have good people in office right now, we want the best of the best."
 
Staff writer Erin Blasko: eblasko@sbtinfo.com 574-235-6187