Two members of the Grand County Council who normally are in lockstep with each other had a very public falling out at Tuesday’s meeting after Rory Paxman suggested the council rescind a significant pay raise they approved Dec. 18.
Paxman was not at the Dec. 18 meeting, nor the one on Jan. 2, but he said if he were, he would not have approved the salary increase that moved them up from $11,600 a year to $31,000 for members and $36,000 for the chair.
“The optics of this don’t look good,” said Paxman. “We weren’t elected to make our own pay raise.”
Paxman said his biggest concern was making budget in 2020. He proposed the council rescind the pay raise, give itself an “appropriate” 2 percent cost of living allowance and put the remaining $139,000 or so dollars in an account to help fund a new council’s salaries once the new form of government is in place, or return it back to the general fund.
While he said his intent in putting the pay raise on the agenda as a discussion-only item was not intended to “blindside” anyone, Council Member Curtis Wells was clearly upset, not just at Paxman, but at people he said have attacked his integrity on social media. Wells said there was public frustration and confusion over the pay raises, but he bristled at allegations they were approved in a less-than-transparent fashion.
He said pay raises for all county employees and elected officials were discussed during numerous meetings of the county’s Budget Advisory Board, which met weekly for the bulk of 2018. “I resent the idea it was done in [the dark],” Wells said.
While several members of the Grand County Republican Party were in attendance to support Paxman, Wells seemed to take the issue personally. He lamented he has given four years of his life to conservative politics. “I helped Rory get elected,” he said. “I’ve done a lot for people in this room.”
Wells said he feels like he’s earned people’s respect. He said the budget meetings last year were well attended compared to prior years for the “$13 million organization” that is Grand County government. “We’re doing real financial planning,” he said, adding that the discussions were transparent.
As has been reported in The Times-Independent several times now, the amount of the pay increases was based on a comparison of salaries earned by part-time county governments in similarly sized Utah counties based on data provided by the Utah Association of Counties.
Wells, a vocal critic of the current county form of government, which he calls “broken,” also said the $900 monthly stipend council members earned prior to the increase meant that only independently wealthy people and retirees could afford to serve on the council, leaving working class candidates unable to consider a run given the low pay and the time requirements the job entails.
Wells was critical of Paxman and hinted that Paxman doesn’t attend committee meetings or put effort into drafting legislation or the other work council members perform. “You know, Curtis,” said Paxman, “I’ve been on here for six years and every meeting has been my day off. I didn’t put time in to get paid, I did it to help the community. I don’t feel you understand what’s happening.”
After the heated exchange, residents who either opposed or supported the pay increase offered comments. Former council member Gene Ciarus told the council the raise was wrong, and that because there are seven members that must be paid, Grand County now has one of the most expensive governments in Utah.
Lynn Jackson apologized for comments he previously made alleging the raise was approved outside of the light of day. “It’s pretty evident this was more than adequately noticed,” he said, but he also said it can be difficult for the public to attend meetings held during the daytime. “The issue I have with the raise is the timing and the sheer amount,” Jackson said, although he agreed a raise was needed in order to increase the pool of candidates. Several people mentioned there were council members who ran unopposed.
Jackson said the raise, however, should be decided by the study committee that will hash out the form of government at some point in the near future. That process is on hold as Seventh District Judge Don Torgerson determines whether the county or a citizens’ group led by Jackson will choose the study group’s membership.
Kevin Walker, a leader in the Grand County Democratic Party, supported the council. “I think the change in salaries makes sense to me,” he said. “I think it was appropriate.” Walker also said the volume of tourists who visit Grand County each year creates a heavier workload for county and city employees and elected officials than what is seen elsewhere.
Local GOP leader Jeramy Day was more critical of the current form of government than he was the pay raise, but he did say that in the future the county will have to pay more for representation, but now is the time to “buckle down.”
Democrat and former council member Bob Greenberg pointed out a flaw in how things are decided. “Here in Grand County we have a really bad habit. We debate things after they happen. I saw the notice in the paper,” he said of the county advising a public hearing would be held regarding the salary increase. A journalist with The Times-Independent was the only citizen present at that public hearing held Dec. 3.
Greenberg also said the new form of government study committee would be tasked with deciding what that government will be, not the salaries that elected officials will earn. Greenberg suggested the salary increases could be an “experiment” to see who might run in two years. “I don’t know if it’s a good thing,” he said. “But it’s a worthwhile thing.”
Cricket Green, planning commissioner and local business owner, kept her comment brief: “If we’re paying you this kind of money, this needs to be your job. No other job.”
Nobody on the council agreed with Paxman’s suggestion they rescind the pay raises. Member Mary McGann offered a brief history of how it came to pass. The issue began four years ago when employees and elected officials began asking for pay raises. The decision was made to commission a salary survey with the goal of putting everyone in the county at a pay grade that would be in the middle of what their counterparts in other like-sized Utah counties are paid. The low pay not only failed to energize potential council candidates, rank and file employees were leaving for better paying government jobs elsewhere.
Council Member Terry Morse said the current council members are taking the heat for the next council. He also said a smaller governing body that will likely be approved would be unable to handle the current workload. “This is a full-time job,” he said, adding his opinion that the job would pay six figures in the private sector. “This operation gets more sophisticated and more complicated every year.”