County commissioners debate whether raises are warranted during a recessionPublished 11:59am Thursday, October 22, 2009
By JOHN EBY
CASSOPOLIS – When dust stirred by discussion settled Thursday night, five Cass County elected officials had raises for 2010.
The Board of Commissioners had one less Democrat and another who favored reducing compensation.
The Elected Officials Salary Committee, chaired by Commissioner Minnie Warren, D-Pokagon Township, and also consisting of Commissioners Cathy Goodenough, R-Marcellus; Dixie Ann File, R-Cassopolis; Debbie Johnson, D-Niles; Carl Higley Sr., R-Edwardsburg; and Gordon Bickel, R-Constantine, met Aug. 20, Sept. 3 and Sept. 17.
At the Sept. 17 meeting, Higley moved that the committee recommend $1,238 for each of the elected officials, including Prosecutor Victor Fitz, Sheriff Joseph Underwood, Clerk-Register Barbara Runyon, Treasurer Linda Irwin and Water Resources Commissioner Bruce Campbell.
Raises passed on a 9-6 vote, with Chairman Robert Wagel, Goodenough, Bickel, Charlie Arnold, Higley, Vice Chairman Ron Francis, File, Clark Cobb and Warren voting in favor.
Bill Steele, David Taylor, Johnie Rodebush, Debbie Johnson and Ed Goodman – all Democrats – and Republican Robert Ziliak were opposed.
Goodman, of Silver Creek Township, said “it’s time for a reality check.”
Goodman also announced, “I’m going to be resigning from the Cass County Democratic Party and the Michigan Democratic and becoming an independent because of all the politics I’ve seen in the Republican and Democratic parties nationally, and even on our own board here.
“I’ve seen politics divide and I believe in America and in doing what’s best for our community and working together. I’m an American first.”
“I don’t want to lay off any employees. I want to keep things status quo … Our state is facing another deficit and is looking wherever it can. Next year is projected to be short again. The state is poised to take our revenue sharing … and to shift more of the cost of mandated services to counties.
“This is not about do they deserve a raise or are they doing a good job,” Goodman asserted. “We were elected to do a good job. And if we aren’t, the voters should remove us. If you read the papers, you’ll see Niles negotiated zero-percent raises. The Niles administrator hasn’t received a raise in two years. There are many other communities that are doing the same.”
“Our road commission, which we praise often,” Goodman continued, “has cut its budget and frozen wages and benefits, cutting sick days from 12 to 10, and many other changes to be fiscally responsible. It’s our turn to start now, to step up and follow these examples.”
Taylor, D-Edwardsburg, said, “Our judges have not had a salary increase since 2000. They make pretty good salaries, there’s no question about that, but they’ve been frozen for nine years. They get about $139,000 now. The real question there is how much they’re going to cut their salaries. They’re talking about lowering them to $119,000. Every judge in Delaware is taking a 2.5-percent decrease with no inflation over the last year. I think the size of our county is declining. It was 51,000 in the last census. I think we’re going to come in closer to 50,000″ in 2010.
“We’re getting a smaller county and people are hurting all over,” Taylor continued. “Wages are going down – not up. This does not reflect on these people, but we’re setting wages for the future as well as the past. I think those numbers need to come down.”
Taylor requested a roll-call vote.
Johnson, D-Niles, served on the committee and, in voting no, had a change of heart since that panel met.
“They all do a spectacular job and they’re wonderful people,” she said.
“Issues were brought up in negotiations about morale. At that time, I agreed to this because I felt more with my heart and not my head. After sitting back and having more time to think about it, and taking my heart out of it and looking at it with my head, I no longer agree that I agree with” the raise recommendation.
“I think the people who put me in office would want me to vote this way, and I’m to represent them. I’m going to change to no,” Johnson said.
Ziliak, R-Niles, said, “I’m really disappointed in the committee that came up with this conclusion to grant raises to elected officials. It wasn’t three meetings ago we went into a closed session, which we can’t discuss, but in your mind think about what we talked about, what we voted on and what we wanted to do. I say no! Let’s set that course, stand our ground and do what we all agreed to do. You know what I’m talking about.
“I think the people on this committee should reconsider their commitment to this motion. They’re not representing the rest of the commissioners who voted to do something else.”
“We didn’t vote,” Higley said.
“We showed our hands,” Ziliak responded. “The bottom line is we should refrain from giving raises at this time because I don’t think we have the money to spend. I agree wholeheartedly with Commissioner Goodman’s opening statement.”
Warren, D-Pokagon Township, defended her panel’s conclusion.
“I still think we cannot sit here and say no,” she said. “I hear what you’re saying, but there are going to be some negotiations we can’t say no on. We’re going to have to negotiate.”
“That’s right,” Higley, R-Edwardsburg, agreed.
“We can’t lock out everyone,” Warren said, “and I will be voting for this.”
Steele, D-Calvin Township, commented, “My heart says they all deserve the money. I don’t have an issue with that. They do a hard job. But, if you watch the news, we’re taking a hard line on seniors. They’re not getting a cost-of-living increase at all.”
“They’re getting $250,” Warren shot back.
“We’re talking about more here,” Steele said, “and saying no to people who are already deciding between food and medicine? Before tonight I would have voted yes, but now I’ve got to vote no now because I feel like we’re mistreating our seniors.”
“The chair will point out that the City of Dowagiac gave the city clerk and treasurer 2.25-percent increases in salary” last Monday night, stated Wagel, R-Wayne Township.
“I served on the committee,” Higley said, “and I’ll tell you what. We’ve got a bunch of people here who are doing a good job for us, and I don’t care what you people say. We do have the money and can do that without hurting our budget. Fact is, that money is in the budget to do this. And when it comes to saying we weren’t going to do this in a closed session, that’s definitely not true. When we make a decision in committee and vote on it,” then back off, “it disturbs me a little bit. When I give my word, it’s my pledge. I don’t break my word. These people deserve something. If we do nothing for them, when we do have the money in the budget, morale is down. This is going to help it. We’ve got good people. Let’s keep them and treat them like people. Prices are going up on a lot of things.”
“It’s not my position, and hasn’t been my position, that we’re short on funds and we’re under budgetary constraints when I oppose these salary increases,” Taylor said. “I oppose them because salaries should be coming down and not going up. We bring in more money in taxes than we pay out in general fund expenses due to the frugal movements of all of our elected officials and department heads. I got another $95.70 from the State of Michigan because I’m old. I’m over 65. Yet they say up in Lansing they don’t have money. Let’s take away some of these silly exclusions.”
Committee member Bickel, R-Constantine, said, “I think these elected officials deserve a wage increase because of the good job they’ve done. If it wasn’t for them, we might not be able to give them a wage increase. This is not a lot of an increase, I grant, but it is something.”