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Monroe County legislators haven't had a raise since 1990. Is now the time?

 2023 Monroe County Compensation Policy Commission
Jeremy Moule
/
WXXI News
Members of the Compensation Policy Commission empaneled by Monroe County legislators discuss aspects of pay for county elected officials during a recent meeting.

Seven people who are part of a commission to determine whether Monroe County elected officials deserve a pay raise gathered in a downtown conference room last week.

It has been decades since county legislators approved salary increases for themselves and most other politicians, and one of the people in that room, former legislator Anthony Daniele, offered a rationale for why.

“I sat in enough of these types of meetings to know that there’s a lot of people getting advice, ‘Why would you vote yourself a raise?’” Daniele said. “I mean, it’s political suicide.”

If that’s the case, legislators appear poised to put their political futures on the line.

In late April, they voted to convene a Compensation Policy Commission to review their salaries and those of the county executive, county clerk, and sheriff. What that panel found is that, in most cases, the pay of elected officials here is far below their counterparts in comparable counties.

That should come as no surprise. Monroe County legislators’ annual salaries have been stagnant at $18,000 since 1990. The county executive and county clerk positions have not had a bump in pay since 2000. Only the sheriff’s pay is on par across the board.

But pay raises for elected officials can be a political minefield for legislators, to whom the unenviable task of approving them would fall. That is especially true in an election year in which all 29 Legislature seats are up for grabs.

The Legislature is not bound by the commission’s recommendations. But Legislature President Sabrina LaMar, a Democrat who supported the commission, has asked for its recommendations by June 1, and it is likely that legislators would take up the matter in the following months. If they do approve any raises, the increases would not take effect until after this year’s elections.

How Monroe County stacks up

Monroe County Legislator Richard Milne ducked out of his day job working in customer technical support for a printing chemicals company on a recent Monday morning to join officials at the Sheriff’s Office in announcing an expansion of the Road Patrol unit.

In three hours, he would have to be in Syracuse. In between, there were duties of his other political job as mayor of Honeoye Falls that needed attention. To make up for the lost time, he would work well into the night.

“I’m doing what I love to do, but it's a lot of time,” says Milne, a Republican who is also mayor of Honeoye Falls. “It’s a lot of energy. It’s a lot of time away from your family.”

This is the life of a Monroe County legislator — a job that is part-time by statute but around the clock in practical terms, and pays less than county legislators in Albany, Erie, and Onondaga. Erie County has the only full-time legislature out of the group.

Milne was one of five legislators, Democrats and Republicans, to vote against establishing the pay review commission. As a first-term legislator, he said he wasn’t comfortable voting for the commission but acknowledged its merits.

“For a lot of us, we’re leaving our full-time jobs to come down to a job that, yes, we are getting some compensation for, don’t get me wrong,” Milne said. “But it’s not easy. It’s not an easy balance for many of us and I think there’s something to be said for the review.”

A comparison of elected officeholders’ salaries from across the state shows that those in Monroe County officials are, on average, underpaid. For example:

  • The Monroe County clerk is paid $80,000 a year, while the Onondaga County Clerk is paid $97,614.  
  • The Monroe County executive is paid $120,000, while the Albany County executive draws a salary of $161,970 
  • While rank-and-file Monroe County legislators are paid $18,000 a year, the salaries for legislators in Albany, Erie, and Onondaga are $26,049, $42,588, and $36,523, respectively. 

The salaries for the county executive and county clerk were enacted at the recommendation of a compensation policy commission that was convened in 2000. That commission criticized the Legislature for holding the executive and county clerk’s salaries below amounts recommended by earlier commissions in 1988, 1993, and 1995.

It also recommended raises for legislators, which legislators declined to approve.

Daniele Lyman Torres, a Democrat on the current commission, suggested to her colleagues that they focus on arriving at new salaries but also on establishing a more regular review process, so salaries don’t stagnate for decades again.

"I think we need to be bold enough to make that suggestion at this time because I think that the salaries for the positions in particular are woefully underfunded,” she said.

The Outcome

Commissioners are developing their recommendations by reviewing the pay, responsibilities, and hours worked of officials who hold the same or similar positions in urban counties across New York.

Meet the Commission

  • Jack Moffit, chair

    Moffit is the former clerk of the Monroe County Legislature and he also previously served as executive director of the Monroe County Republican Committee.
  • Christine Whitfield

    Whitfield is Canandaigua National Bank’s vice president, manager of talent and development. She is not registered with a political party.
  • Richard Dollinger

    Dollinger, a Democrat, cut his teeth as a county legislator and went on to serve as a state senator, where he once voted against a pay raise for state lawmakers.
  • Mark Muoio

    Muoio is a former Democratic county legislator who served on a 2015 commission examining pay for the Sheriff’s Office. He is Housing Unit program director at the Legal Aid Society of Rochester.
  • Anthony Daniele

    Daniele, a Republican, is a former county legislator. He’s a well-known developer whose family company brought Whole Foods to Brighton.
  • Daniele Lyman Torres

    Lyman Torres is the president and CEO of Bivona Child Advocacy Center. A registered Democrat, she served as the city’s commissioner of recreation and human services during the administration of former Mayor Lovely Warren.
  • Paul Britton

    Britton is a civil attorney and a registered Conservative. He is a past member of the Monroe County Conservative Party’s executive committee.

During last week’s meeting, one of the commissioners, Richard Dollinger, a Democrat who formerly served in the Legislature and state Senate, suggested raising pay for legislators, the county clerk, and the county executive by a third. That would put legislators’ pay at $24,000, the county clerk’s at $105,000, and the county executive’s at $160,000.

Daniele countered that such a raise still amounted to less than the typical annual cost-of-living increases since the last time most of those positions got a bump. He also suggested phasing in raises over two years.

Whether legislators have the stomach to pass substantial pay raises is another matter.

That the issue would be contentious appeared to be on the minds of Democratic Legislator John Baynes and Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew as they delivered measured remarks on the floor ahead of voting to empanel the commission.

“We don't know the outcome of this study, I don't think we should fear that at all,” Baynes said.

Brew said he wasn’t advocating for raises, but that he did feel a study of salaries was long overdue.

“Perhaps, for all we know, the commission would come back with the recommendation that all of our salaries should be reduced,” he said. “And please note that although that might be highly unlikely, I guess I would be fine with that as well.”

Lawmakers often find it politically daunting to vote themselves a raise, said Lisa Parshall, a political science professor at Damen University in Buffalo and a fellow at the SUNY Rockefeller Institute of Government.

But inaction can lead to the sort of salary stagnation now confronting Monroe County.

"Local elected officials are always caught between the crux of residents who want high quality services, but they want low taxes,” Parshall said. “And I think particularly now when you have a fiscal crunch, you have a period of a little bit of distrust of institutions and public service, and people are feeling cost of living pressures, it seems unpalatable to the many voters to talk about pay raises for elected officials."

The last Monroe County elected official to push for a raise arguably paid for it with his job.

Former Sheriff Patrick O’Flynn relentlessly pursued several pay hikes over the course of roughly five years, arguing that his salary should be tied to that of the district attorney, which is set by the state.

Public outrage was so intense that at one point Republican legislators who had appeased O’Flynn’s request reneged on approving a $37,000 pay hike, claiming that the sheriff misunderstood their agreement.

The multi-year fiasco came to an end in 2015 after legislators formed a commission to take up the sheriff’s compensation. That commission recommended a step system in which the sheriff’s pay increases for each year in office, and legislators adopted it.

The raise took effect in the 2017, and that year O’Flynn lost his reelection bid to Democrat Todd Baxter.

Parshall said the public doesn’t often take notice of governmental pay commissions’ deliberations. Political pressure on legislators tends to ratchet up once they begin discussing the commission’s recommendations and prepare to vote on them.

How the public reacts may come down to the report prepared by the commission and how lawmakers use the data in it to justify raises.

“I think it will depend on how extensively they provide justification and provide the data and show again the lag of these salaries,” Parshall said.

Corrected: May 25, 2023 at 1:32 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story misnamed SUNY Rockefeller Institute of Government. The error has been corrected.
Jeremy Moule is a deputy editor with WXXI News. He also covers Monroe County.