County commissioner pay – how much?

The Guide to Michigan County Government is a great source of detailed information about the structure, function, and services provided by counties in Michigan.

How much pay is appropriate for elected officials? Ken VerBurg, MSU professor emeritus discussed some considerations for making that decision in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government

“How much should the public pay a county commissioner? This is a question with no firm answer. Serving on the county board often requires that a commissioner attend meetings at times when the person might otherwise be out earning a living or pursing a hobby. Serving on the county board, then, can have costs. Undoubtedly, some commissioners may be wealthy enough so they do not miss the income lost while attending meetings. And some may have employers who do not dock their pay for time spent in meetings. But for others, attending meetings may mean a loss in regular income. Compensation for attending the meetings thus helps keep the losses to a minimum. 

Sometimes residents argue that the people who ran “knew what the job paid. If they couldn’t afford it, they shouldn’t have run.” But that’s the point. If serving on the county board is to require substantial time and economic cost and if there is little or no compensation, only those who can afford the cost would take the position. That screens out a wide variety of people who might otherwise make a beneficial contribution to the county and indeed give the board a democratically representative quality. 

Is this an argument for an ever-increasing level of compensation for the county commission? Not exactly, but it is important, we think, to understand how commissioner compensation may relate to the democratic quality of a county board. 

We should also note that the argument has another aspect. It has a Jacksonian tone ⎯ county boards should consist of average citizens not professional commissioners. The idea is that high pay discourages turnover in the commissioner positions with the result that the members develop too much control and become immune to new ideas or the ideas of others. To be sure, this is a danger and may in fact be a reality in some counties. This kind of problem has been attacked by advocates of term limitations, a provision that applies to elective executive and legislative offices at the state level and in numerous cities.

Others will argue that these public offices can be filled by qualified people even with low levels of compensation. The implication is that each community has people who have strong commitment to public service and will step forward regardless of the compensation. To be sure, the validity of this argument is demonstrated in communities around the state. At the same time, many would maintain that the total number of people available for public service would drop if the public offered only token compensation.

As we can see from these lines of argument, the question of commissioner pay involves various perspectives. The legislature, we believe, has wisely left the question to be settled within each local political arena and has not established a statewide standard. However, the legislature set out a few basic rules.”

We’ll address those rules, and the issue of salary versus per-diem in future articles.

Watch for future Michigan State University Extension articles with more information about county government. Professor VerBurg’s book, Guide to Michigan County Government, Fourth Edition, is available in electronic form online on a CD or a USB drive with nearly 500 pages of detailed information about county government, with extensive footnotes to constitutional and statutory information. The update process is underway to be sure the information and statutory notations are current, with rollout of the Fifth Edition expected in fall 2016.

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