Voters in fiscally conservative Placer County last week overwhelmingly approved an initiative that will more than double county supervisor salaries, a reversal of two previous elections in which they handily rejected modest raises.
While supporters praised the result as a fair compensation boost, opponents said voters mistakenly believed they were installing another pay restriction.
“It used words like ‘limit’ and ‘restrict,’” said Tom Hudson, a Roseville activist and executive director of the California Taxpayer Protection Committee. “Based on that, a person who wasn’t familiar with the county charter would get the impression this was putting limits. They wouldn’t have realized this was a 139 percent increase.”
Supervisor pay had been capped at $30,000 annually after voters approved a 1992 initiative sponsored by a local taxpayers group. Placer County voters had twice turned down proposals to increase that amount, first in 1998 for $35,000 annually and again in 2008 for $48,000 a year. Nearly 75 percent of voters rejected the 2008 proposal, according to the Placer County Office of Elections.
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But last week, Measure B won with more than 62 percent of the vote.
Under the charter amendment, Placer County will adjust pay every February based on the average compensation for supervisors in neighboring Sacramento, El Dorado and Nevada counties. Based on current pay levels, Placer County supervisors stand to receive $71,755 a year.
Measure B asked voters, “In order to provide an effective representative government, restrict future pay increases, pension and healthcare costs, shall Placer County ... limit the Board of Supervisors salary to no more than the average salary of County Supervisors in the neighboring Counties of El Dorado, Nevada, and Sacramento?”
By comparison, the 2008 failed Placer initiative asked voters to “adjust the current $30,000 maximum compensation ... to a maximum of $48,000,” with future increases tied to the federal consumer price index.
Supporters of Measure B argued that the pay hike would allow more people to run for office, noting that Placer supervisors were vastly underpaid compared to their regional and state counterparts. Opponents contended that a pay increase would open up the office to career politicians.
Jim Williams, chairman of the county Charter Review Committee and a former supervisor, spearheaded the latest push to raise salaries. He disagreed with the notion that the ballot question was misleading and noted that the ballot arguments stated there would be a pay increase.
“This wasn’t a partisan issue,” Williams said. “This was a reasonable and fair way to do it.”
Williams said the ballot question was written by the county counsel’s office, with input from the county Charter Review Committee, which in January suggested that supervisors get a pay bump. The Board of Supervisors in July voted unanimously to place the measure on the ballot.
In a written statement, Placer County spokesman Mike Fitch said Measure B’s “language was based on the approach used in Measure F, which sets sheriff’s deputy salaries, primarily because the voters had seen Measure F before and previously supported that methodology.”
Measure F was approved by voters in 1976 and fixes “the average salary for each class of position in the Placer County sheriff’s office at a level equal to the average of the salaries for the comparable positions in the Nevada County sheriff’s office, El Dorado County sheriff’s office and the Sacramento County sheriff’s office.”
Williams attributed the wide margin of victory to the fact that Measure B provided a “methodology” rather than just “resetting the number” as previous proposals attempted to do.
“The other (counties) can lower it too, just like Placer County did,” Williams said, referring to supervisor compensation in Sacramento, El Dorado and Nevada counties.
He added, “If this were to get out of whack, the voters can still change the methodology. It doesn’t give power to the board. It keeps power with the people.”
Hudson, who led the anti-Measure B campaign, said it was an uphill battle “as soon as we saw the ballot.”
“You can see what happens when you mislead people,” he said.
As for those who will directly benefit from the pay hike, Supervisor Jim Holmes said he was ready to quit his second job as fleet manager for the Placer County Office of Education to focus more on county duties.
“People didn’t understand we were grossly underpaid,” he said. “Now that I have more time, I’ll be able to spend more time being supervisor.”
But, Holmes added, “the expectation is going to be higher.”
Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.