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El Paso County employees slated to lose 2007 raises unlike budget-cutting officials

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At a time when El Paso County government employees are set to see their wages frozen due to budget woes, several county officials including two commissioners are poised to collect considerably fatter paychecks.

Commissioner Jim Bensberg, for example, will pocket $24,097 more in 2007 than he did this year bringing his salary to $87,300. Sheriff Terry Maketa, Treasurer Sandra Damron, Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink and Coroner Bob Bux also will see hefty increases.

But don't blame commissioners for doling out the extra dough, says Commissioner Wayne Williams, whose pay will increase if he defeats Democrat Bruce Berner in the Nov. 7 election. Instead, Williams says, blame the state Legislature.

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved House Bill 1295 at the urging of a nonprofit that represents the state's county officials, Colorado Counties, Inc. The bill mandates higher paychecks in a tiered system for newly elected county officials across Colorado.

Because Republicans Bensberg, Maketa, Damron, Balink and Bux will be re-elected they're all running unopposed their salaries will go up as of Jan. 1.

The county's incoming assessor and surveyor, both of whom are running unopposed, will earn more than their predecessors, too. The total impact to the budget will be nearly $117,000.

The financial blow comes as the five-member Board of County Commissioners grapples with eliminating more than $7 million from the county's budget.

Commissioners are on the brink of approving a wage freeze for some 2,000 county employees, ending a work-release program for county inmates, and cutting welfare assistance and other services.

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Williams hopes "under-spending" in departments could salvage some kind of pay increase for employees before next summer.

Asked if he would donate his raise to the county to help ease budget woes, Williams replied, "No."

He added, "We follow the law as it is. ... I know neither Jim [Bensberg] nor I testified in favor of the bill."

Bensberg could not be reached by deadline.

Colorado Counties executive director Larry Kallenberger defends the raises. He says commissioners' salaries, for one thing, often are out of step with those of other county officials.

"It was needed," he says, adding that a salary committee led by Larimer County Commissioner Kathay Rennels backed the idea.

No local officials were on that committee.

El Paso County Commissioner Douglas Bruce was one of just two county officials across the state to speak against the bill at the Legislature when it came up for debate earlier this year.

Contacted earlier this week, he characterized the increases as a cynical "money grab" by elected officials.

deyoanna@csindy.com

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