County commissioner pay – Salary versus per diem

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

Is the best way to pay a person for their position a salary, or a rate based on the amount of time or product produced? As a society, it seems we have settled into patterns for some positions, but the debate still comes up occasionally. Relative to county commissioners – and many other elected officials – the choice is salary, or on a per meeting basis, known as per diem, or some combination of the two.

Ken VerBurg, MSU Professor Emeritus talks about this subject in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government.

Salary vs. Per Diem

“What should be the basis for a county commissioner’s pay? Counties have tried various ways. They have used annual salaries. The idea behind the annual salary is that it recognizes that the job of a commissioner involves a variety of responsibilities both at board meetings, in the courthouse, and in the voter district. But the annual salary approach presented problems because some commissioners abused the system and failed to attend meetings regularly.                                                         

County boards have also used the per diem or meeting method of compensation. Those who attend a meeting get paid, others do not. We also find this approach abused from time to time as committees would meet frequently for short times and end up collecting the meeting fee for little or no work. And some commissioners would set up several meetings at the same time and go from one to another and collect the fees for each. Such abuses led many boards to use a combination of salary and per diem. A commissioner would get a small annual salary plus payment for attending meetings. Some counties also put an overall cap on the total compensation each year.

Compensating county commissioners has not been an easy policy to develop. What is clear is that county boards and compensation commissions need to state the policy precisely and carefully if they are to deal with the occasional commissioner who seeks to take advantage of every possible loophole.”

The current practice of county boards and other local governments is the combination approach that Ken discussed. This recognizes that the role encompasses many responsibilities beyond meetings, and also relates the compensation to the number of meetings, recognizing the extra time involved during seasons of the year when meetings are numerous.

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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