CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, said county officeholders are asking for raises that are too large and those county officials, not state lawmakers, need to be held accountable for county-level pay increases.
Right now, the Legislature sets the salaries for county commissioners, sheriffs, county clerks, circuit clerks, assessors and prosecutors. They have not received raises since 2006. The Legislature gave raises to state workers, teachers, judges and magistrates last year.
Now, county officials are lobbying for raises that would give $10,000 more to commissioners, $13,000 more to sheriffs, $15,000 more to circuit and county clerks, $10,000 more to assessors and $12,000 more to prosecutors, said West Virginia Association of Counties Executive Director Patti Hamilton.
The Senate Government Organization Committee advanced the pay bill early in the session. It is now pending in the Senate Finance Committee.
Unger said the raises are "too much" and said he wants to expose a shell game he thinks county officials are playing with voters. He said county officials come to Charleston, lobby for raises then go back to their counties and say the Legislature forced them to take more money.
He wants county-level officials to set their own salaries. Doing so makes officials more accountable to the public.
"If a county commission raises the county officials' salaries to a certain point, or the maximum, they have to be held accountable to the people, because that's their vote - they voted," Unger said. "Now, the way it is, they come down here, they lobby us, we raise it."
Hamilton said that is no longer the case because county officials have to sign for their raises - something no other public officials are required to do.
"Maybe that was true 10 years ago, but as matter of fact, each county official has to sign to take their pay raises - and we're only the public officials that have to do that," she said.
Some officials have waved off the raises to avoid voter ire. But the raises are automatically granted when a new term in office starts. Unger called that a "game."
"They'll play a game, like those that are up for reelection now: they'll deny their increase, but once they are re-elected they automatically get it because it goes to the new position. 'Oh, I had to take it, the Legislature raised it,' " Unger said. "Well you sat down here, spent the 60 days on my couch asking me to do it for you."
Unger was referring to the couches in his office suite that interest groups stake out during the 60-day legislative session to try to sway he and Senate President Jeff Kessler's opinions.
The pay scale for elected county officials is set in state code, and county-level elected officials set salaries for un-elected staff.
Hamilton said elected officials need a raise.
"Not many of us go six years without any kind of raise," she said.
The salary levels in code are based on the tax revenue counties can generate. Counties with a smaller tax base pay their elected officials less.