Rogers County Commissioners approved raises for approximately 230 county employees this week, to take effect Jan. 1.
The approval came as a pleasant surprise to many county officials, who recently spent three weeks in budget negotiations, defending their request for more resources.
“It seems rather spontaneous, but it wasn’t,” said Commissioner Ron Burrows, who brought the raises up for a vote.
Elected officials will receive a raise not to exceed 5 percent while the percentage raise for non-elected employees is still to be determined.
“As a board, we are concerned about pay for our employees and elected officials because of the rising cost of living,” Burrows said. “It goes up every year roughly 2 percent.”
Over the last 12 years, county employees and officials have received only two raises.
County Treasurer Jason Carini compared county salaries from 15 years ago to county salaries today.
“Everyone at the county has taken a pay cut over the last 15 years, just due to inflation,” Carini said. “Inflation has not been bad, at all. But if you take that over a 15-year period, you’re losing money.”
“When you are competing with the rest of the market for skilled employees, the pay has to be competitive,” Burrows said. “Government employees are paid less, and in some areas considerably less, than what that same job would earn in the private sector.”
“We have great benefits, and benefits have value, but you can’t eat benefits,” Burrows said.
The decision to approve the raises now, came from legal and practical constraints at the state and local level.
At a local level, Burrows said, the county needed to approve a balanced budget for the next fiscal year before they could consider increases in pay.
The money for raises will come from the county general government building and maintenance funds.
“It’s not taking away the opportunity for us to cover those expenses,” Burrows said.
Because state law prevents the county from having a reserve fund, the county allocates excess dollars to the general government maintenance and operations and building improvement funds.
“We put more money in those funds to cover expenses that come up along the way,” Burrows said.
At the state level, the raises had to be approved this year, before Nov. 1, or there wouldn’t be a chance to approve raises again until 2023.
This restriction is due, in part, to the state constitution, which says elected officials cannot make changes to their pay during an election cycle.
The county was further restricted by a new law that went into effect Friday, Nov. 1, which fundamentally changes the pay structure for elected officials across the state.
Carini said the new law is designed to simplify the old formula used to determine elected official pay. However, there is not enough time between Nov. 1 and Jan. 1 to learn and employ the new formula.
“This conversation is not just happening in Rogers County, it’s happening across the state of Oklahoma,” Carini said.
Several county employees expressed gratitude for the unexpected pay raise.
Court Clerk Cathi Edwards said, “If I could raise my clerks up to what the rest of the county makes, that would be a great morale booster.”
Rogers County Election Board Secretary Julie Dermody, who is herself a non-elected county employee, said pay raises will open the door to more qualified candidates for public office.
“Public service is a 24/7/365 job, answering constituent questions. Our job is to be available to the public,” Dermody said. “The job they do is very intense, and it’s only fair that we show appreciation to those elected officials.”
Also at play in the discussion of raises was the hope, expressed by both Carini and Burrows, of institutionalizing cost-of-living adjustments to county employees.
“I’m a big proponent of having a long-term financial plan for the county, and one of items has to be salary increases on a regular basis,” Carini said. “Raises are good, and they need to be part of our overall strategy for how the county is going to plan out the next five to 10 years.”
“Moving forward, my goal and recommendation is that we start budgeting, at least every other year or every third year, to put aside enough money to have a raise,” Burrows said. “That has not been done before in Rogers County.”