Recession is gripping Colorado. Unemployment is up, and the state is facing a budget shortfall. It's time to tighten our belts, say state lawmakers in Denver, who promise to focus their efforts this year on cutting spending.
That is, unless they're doling out taxpayers money to benefit fellow politicians. In that case, some of them -- including Colorado Springs' own Republican Rep. Bill Sinclair -- think it's perfectly OK to increase spending.
Sinclair, who represents House District 16 in central Colorado Springs, has signed on as the primary House sponsor of a bill that would, for the second time in two years, boost the salaries of county commissioners throughout Colorado by nearly 20 percent. The bill passed through committee on Jan. 16.
Normally, hiking politicians' salaries while cutting spending for other things might be frowned upon. But the beauty of it is, it won't cost the state a dime. While the commissioners' salaries are set by the state Legislature, they are paid for with county taxes.
Currently in El Paso County, the five commissioners, all Republicans, each make between $56,600 and $63,200 annually, depending on when they were elected. They also receive benefits worth an estimated 24 percent of their base salary, and commissioners who complete two four-year terms receive lifetime pensions of $936 per month.
That, according to Sinclair, isn't enough. Under the bill he is sponsoring, commissioners in the largest counties, including El Paso, would make up to $75,500 per year plus benefits -- a salary increase of 19.5 percent over the current maximum. That comes on the heels of a previous raise, enacted just two years ago, when the top salary grew from $56,600 to $63,200.
The proposed new increase, Sinclair said, will bring county commissioners up to the same pay level as county assessors and treasurers.
"I think you need to pay these individuals enough money," he said.
Ed Jones, who until recently served as chairman of the El Paso County commissioners, said his fellow commissioners deserve the raise. (Jones himself is term-limited from that office this year, and is expected to run for the state Senate.)
State law does not specify that the jobs are full-time, only that county commissioners must meet twice weekly. They aren't required to keep regular office hours and some retain their "day jobs," but Jones said most of them spend more than 40 hours per week performing their official duties.
"We're here every day, and we're on call every day," Jones said.
Fellow commissioner Chuck Brown also supports the increase. He pointed out that commissioners are only eligible for a raise at the beginning of a new term. Once elected, a commissioner is stuck at the same pay level for four years.
In contrast, "wage earners generally automatically get a cost-of-living increase on an annual basis, or close to it," Brown said.
Brown, who estimates he works eight to nine hours per day, said the workload is increasing as the county continues to grow. The proposed $75,500 pay level is reasonable "for the time spent on the job and for a middle-management position," he argued.
Bill Guman, a former City Council member who is running for county commissioner in November, disagreed. He pointed out that Council members, who, he maintained, work just as many hours as commissioners, are paid an annual stipend of just $6,250, with no benefits.
MaryAnne Tebedo, a former state senator who is also running for commissioner, likewise questioned the raise.
"They already get paid too much," Tebedo said. Regardless of whether it's a state or county expense, "it comes out of the taxpayers' pocket books."
Bill Jambura, a local GOP activist who is challenging the incumbent Sinclair for his House seat this year, lambasted the proposed pay hike. Given the current budgetary deficit, "it's unconscionable," Jambura said.
Sinclair, meanwhile, said Guman's comparison with the City Council stipend simply underscores how the city is "eons behind the times" and needs to increase its own compensation of elected officials.
"You've got to face the fact that Colorado is exploding with growth, and we're not running this thing as if it was some hick town in Alabama or something," Sinclair said.
If county commissioner candidates don't agree with the raise, they can simply refuse to accept it once they're elected, he added. "But I bet none of them do."