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Tough times left Benton County commissioners searching for ways to cut $1.6 million from the county budget. Most departments saw their 2010 budgets cut by roughly 2 percent.
At the same time, county commissioners and other elected officials saw their pay increase by 2.6 percent this year.
Salaries for the commissioners, assessor, auditor, coroner and treasurer jumped from $92,305 in 2009 to $94,788 this year. The sheriff's salary went from $106,150 last year to $109,006 in 2010.
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And better times are ahead. The county's elected officials are scheduled for additional raises of 3.5 percent in 2011 and 2012.
And there's the disconnect. Belt-tightening exercises and generous pay raises are a strange combination.
To their credit, Benton County commissioners recently voted to freeze elected officials' pay for two years after the current series of raises ends. It's the right move but doesn't go far enough.
Blaming a quirk in the law for not doing better -- the usual response from elected officials -- is cold comfort for taxpayers.
Under state law, any salary changes approved for the county's elected officials are deferred until after the next election.
The three-year round of pay hikes Benton County officials are enjoying were approved in 2007, and only the newly elected or re-elected officials are eligible to get them.
In other words, elected officials have to face the voters before pay raises take effect. It seems like a logical safeguard against abuses.
It also works the other way, however, preventing timely pay freezes or cuts during tough times.
It's not clear how to fix the problem. Allowing pay cuts or freezes to take immediate effect, while still enforcing the delay on raises, might help.
Some worry that would encourage political grandstanding rather than responsible fiscal policy. We're willing to take the risk.
At any rate, we don't accept the excuse that current law leaves elected officials' hands tied. Salaries can't be changed during any current term, but raises can be donated back to the county.
That's what commissioners did in Yakima County. And it's what we suggested to Franklin County commissioners a couple of months ago, not that it did much good. Franklin County is facing particularly tough times, with overall budget cuts of around 9 percent this year.
Granted, even if every elected official agreed to return pay raises until county revenues improve, it wouldn't amount to a big percentage of Benton County's $52 million budget.
Even so, it would be a meaningful gesture -- one that would be handy to point out during labor negotiations or while explaining to constituents why county services face fiscal constraints.
Freezing raises after 2012 is good. Refunding raises today is better.