Tooele County Commissioners Myron Bateman and Wade Bitner evidently don’t plan to seek re-election in 2018. How could anyone conclude differently after the stunning political and character damage these two men willingly did to themselves last week?
At last Tuesday’s county commission meeting, during which the 2017 county budget was adopted, Bateman and Bitner voted for tax increases for the county’s general budget (9 percent), the county health department (6.15 percent) and the municipal services fund (9 percent). After public hearings on the proposed increases last month, it came as no surprise when Bateman and Bitner approved them. Commissioner Shawn Milne voted against the increases, however, as well as the 2017 county budget.
But what did come as a surprise is what Bateman and Bitner voted for after they adopted the budget and the tax increases: They gave themselves a raise that boosts their annual base salaries to $87,347 each. Their annual base salaries were $73,766 for Bitner, who is commission chairman, and $73,139 for Bateman (the same amount for Milne). Do the math and Bitner’s increase totals $13,581 and Bateman’s and Milne’s total $14,208 each.
Milne again voted no, saying, “I don’t think it’s right to propose an increase in commissioners’ salary at the same time you are making a case for a 9-percent increase in property taxes.” He has since announced he’ll give his pay increase to local charities (see related front-page story).
But there’s another reason why Bateman’s and Bitner’s vote for a pay hike at this time isn’t “right.” Eighteen months ago, they publicly committed not to grant themselves another salary increase, except for annual cost-of-living adjustments, for the rest of their current terms of office.
That commitment came on July 21, 2015, during a commission meeting in which Bateman and Bitner rescinded a salary increase they had voted for two weeks prior. At that time, they tried to bump their salaries from approximately $70,000 to $85,755 then lowered it to approximately $78,500. But after running into public blowback, they opted to take a 3-percent cost-of-living adjustment instead.
At that July 21, 2015 meeting, the commissioners were pressed by a citizen not to raise their salaries again, except for COLAs. All three said they wouldn’t raise their salaries while in office. However, Bitner did say later he still wanted to explore a salary increase for incoming commissioners.
But he and Bateman did more than consider a pay raise for future commissioners last week. They included themselves. By doing so, they broke a promise they made to Tooele County taxpayers on July 21, 2015.
After the county’s recent financial crisis, and now a fourth year of county tax hikes since 2013, Bateman’s and Bitner’s salary increases are a reckless affront to county taxpayers. For local citizens who live on a fixed income and struggle to pay the county’s tax increases, the new commission salary is simply a cruel insult to injury.
Although public blowback may happen again, Bateman and Bitner say they won’t rescind their salary increase like in July 2015 (see related front-page story). They believe the job deserves more pay because of workload, should be increased to make the job more appealing for future commissioners, and shouldn’t be less than what other elected county officers earn.
But like we editorialized in July 2015 during the commissioners’ first pay-raise attempt, they need to back that belief with a detailed public explanation about what they do and why taxpayers should pay for it.
But if such an explanation isn’t forthcoming, it could come by way of a different source. During last month’s general election, county voters approved Proposition 14, which puts into motion a citizen committee whose charge is to study the county’s three-commissioner form of government and determine whether or not it meets the needs of citizens. If not, the committee may recommend the three commissioners be replaced with a different form of government.
Unwittingly perhaps, Bateman and Bitner just gave the study committee a good place to start. When it comes to effective checks and balances within a county commission that holds both executive and legislative powers, what the committee finds or recommends will likely make for interesting reading.
Bateman and Bitner are good men and have contributed much to the county commission since taking office in January 2015. But when it comes to giving themselves substantial salary increases during a time of successive tax hikes, their choices suggest they’re out of touch with constituents, or worse, they just want more pay because they feel entitled to it.
Even though the extra $41,997 the three commissioners will collectively get on their paychecks in 2017 is small change when compared to the county’s overall budget, it’s still a matter of principle — and certainly a matter of integrity.
Bateman and Bitner should rescind the raise and stick to their commitment made on July 21, 2015.