Three long-time elected county officials will leave office in 2021, prompting Ellis County Commissioners to take a look now at what may be a topsy-turvy salary schedule from so many years of experience.
Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin, County Clerk Donna Maskus and County Attorney Tom Drees all face expiring terms Jan. 21, 2021. While he said he doesn't wish to speak for them, County Administrator Phillip Smith-Hanes told the commission he has it on good authority the three won't run again for their offices. All three confirmed it to The Hays Daily News.
Each year in December, the Ellis County Commissioners adopt the elected official salary resolution for the coming year, which governs the five elected county officials who are also department heads.
But Smith-Hanes told the commissioners Tuesday during a work session in the Schenk Building at the Ellis County Fairgrounds that actual salaries are out of whack with the intent of the county pay schedule implemented in 2016, referred to as the Evergreen Study.
“When we did the Evergreen Study, it placed the different elected officials into ranges, and so for example, register of deeds in one pay range, the clerk is in a little bit higher pay range, then the treasurer is a little higher, then the sheriff and the county attorney are in another range,” said Smith-Hanes. “But when we actually put the people into those positions in the pay plan, it was based on their experience at the time.”
As a result, Maskus as clerk, for example, makes more than County Treasurer Lisa Schlegel.
“At the time this all went into effect in 2016, we had a county clerk with a certain number of years of experience and a treasurer with a certain number of years, and a sheriff with a certain number of years, and so people got placed into that with where they were at that point in time,” said Smith-Hanes, who wasn’t with the county then.
“But now, starting next November when we have elections, that’s no longer going to be the case, because we’ll have some new folks, and so the commission really needs to make a decision of ‘Does the new sheriff get the salary because that’s what Ed Harbin was being paid?” he said, “Or should it be higher or lower, or the same?”
The issue doesn’t so much impact the sheriff and the county attorney, as much as the clerk, register of deeds and treasurer, said Smith-Hanes. Typically a treasurer is paid more, but that’s not the case currently in Ellis County, because Maskus has so many more years of experience.
That’s essentially the reverse of the Evergreen Study pay scale, Smith-Hanes said, adding that for that reason most counties don’t apply a pay plan to elected officials.
“So it would be a little weird if say Lisa Schlegel runs for office and gets re-elected, well she would have five years of experience at that point,” he said. “But if they kept the salary for the clerk, where Donna was, and a new person comes in, you could have a brand new person making more money than this person with five years experience, even though the treasurer is at a higher grade than the clerk. And that makes no sense.”
He recommended the commission take up the issue before December to sort out a solution for 2021 budget discussions.
“I guess I’d like to see that range maybe in the next 60 days or less,” said Commission Chair Dean Haselhorst. “Let’s look at 45 days, and we have a couple weeks to talk about it.”
“It does get complicated based on the experience that a person brings into it,” said Commissioner Butch Schlyer. “I think for sure we need a range that we can look at.”
The discussion affects five Ellis County elected officials.
Harbin, who’s been on the job since 1997 and has 22 years in office, earns $83,086 a year. Tom Drees, who’s been on the job since 1989 and has 30 years in office, also earns $83,086 a year.
Maskus, who’s been in the clerk’s office about 39 years and clerk for seven years starting in 2013, earns $62,028 a year. Schlegel has been treasurer for two years since 2017 and earns $58,666 a year. Register of Deeds Rebecca Herzog has worked in her office for 41 years, been the elected official for 18 years since 2001, and earns $54,053.
Each of the elected officials have four-year terms and are up for re-election in November 2020, taking office in January 2021, with one exception. As state law requires, county treasurer has an 11-month delay, taking office the following October.
“So let’s just say that we’re going to have a new county attorney because we know Tom Drees is running for judge,” said Haselhorst. “If we have a new county attorney, and whoever replaces him has 10 years experience, is that something we’re going to look at it that way, or are we going to look at it as a brand new county attorney?”
“How would you do that?” said Smith-Hanes.
“That’s what I’m asking,” Haselhorst said.
“The salary is what it is,” Smith-Hanes explained, referencing himself and the county’s HR generalist Janet Schmidt. “So if you choose to pay for experience, how do you implement that in a practical way? Janet and I are not qualified to judge the capabilities of the elected officials, that is for the voters of Ellis County, not for a payroll person to determine, right, so we need a pre-objective standard for what that means.”
Smith-Hanes said he’d bring back the ranges in a few weeks and also peg where officials are now on it.
“I think the litmus test for us with the voters is that maybe we come up with what the pay is for certain elected officials,” said Commissioner Dustin Roths. “That’s just the pay, and voters decide on what elected official they’re going to vote for. I think if we get into trying to figure out 'Has an attorney been an attorney for 10 years?' or 'Has a sheriff worked in law enforcement for X amount of years?' it might dis-incentivize somebody who’s younger from running for that office, and it might not give the voters as many choices as they might otherwise get.”