It’s not just the wage increases that should have our attention

Lee County is in a fish bowl when it comes to the Back the Blue law.

In the past several days Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber has been in several of the state’s largest newspapers talking about the impact of the legislation on law enforcement as well as the impact on county budgets.

From all the chatter through those media outlets it would appear that the Lee County Board of Supervisors recent nod to a 45% increase for the sheriff and his administration may have been the largest single increase in the state as a result of the legislation.

I like to put things in nutshells. It keeps the word count low, and is supposed to simplify the issues. To that end, the Back the Blue law requires county compensation boards to take a median average look at salaries across the state for administrative law enforcement positions including everything from police chiefs with cities of comparable size to counties, to Iowa State Patrol administrative salaries, to Iowa DCI administrative salaries.

The intent of the law was to protect law enforcement to a higher degree from backlash in going about their daily routines of protecting the citizenry. On the back end of the bill came the salary mitigation.

It quickly became the focal point of legislation as counties, specifically in rural areas where budgets are a bit more depressed in reflection of those economies, began to see the impact of the law on salary recommendations.

Boards of Supervisors can brush aside a lofty pay increase recommendation for elected officials, but they are required by law to make any adjustments across the board. In the case of Lee County, the compensation board recommended a 45% increase to the sheriff’s salary, which ties by county code to the Chief Deputy, the department Captain, and the Jail Administrator.

The board also recommended a 10% across-the-board increase for all other elected officials. In brushing aside a 45% increase for one elected official, the board is handcuffed to a degree because any adjustment to the one compensation board recommendation has to be applied to other elected officials equally.

If they cut the sheriff’s recommended increase in half, they would have to cut all the other elected officials in half as well.

The weird twist in Lee County came when the item was placed on the board’s agenda at the Jan. 31 meeting. Typically the board would vote, as part of the budget process, on the comp. board’s recommendation, which only applies to elected officials’ salaries.

But the agenda was listed as “discussion and possible action on employee wages. Supervisor Ron Fedler motioned to accept a 50% reduction in the comp board recommendation. That would have set a 22.5% increase for the sheriff and a 5% increase for the other elected officials. Salaries in those departments would have been negotiated as part of the regular budgeting process.

But since the agenda item listed specifically employee wages, and Fedler’s motion failed by a 3-2 vote, Supervisor Garry Seyb motioned to approve a 45% increase for the sheriff and a 10% increase for all other employees, and that motion passed 3-2 with Fedler and Board Chairman Matt Pflug voting in opposition to the increases.

The raise amounted to a roughly $45,000 increase for Weber, making him the highest paid employee in the county. That’s a tough one to swallow in rural southeast Iowa and was a tough, long debate for supervisors. Pflug flat out said no one deserves that kind of a raise in any sector, despite his documented support for the sheriff’s department and Lee County Jail.

There’s a couple things at work here that most people don’t choose to, or haven’t yet had the inclination to, think about it.

Lee County is being outpaced by other counties, even rural counties, in salary comparisons across the board. That’s a result of past boards ignoring the recommendations of compensation boards that due the diligence in making recommendations. It’s also a byproduct of a sluggish economy.

But there’s the other side that we don’t think about. On Thursday, four sheriff’s deputies including Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber had to take down two armed robbers out of Des Moines. One at gunpoint at the Denmark JetStop.

I think writing for all to see and digest takes a little bravery, but it’s a physically safe bravery. I wouldn’t want to be the first one through the door. Don’t get me wrong, there are people in the county that would do that, I’m just not one of them, and when my tax dollars go to pay those that do, I’m fine with that.

It’s not the salaries that concern me, it’s the vote. We have two local legislators who confessed to not having all the information at hand before voting on Back the Blue. So the power of that caucus or the lack of diligence needs to be pointed out here.

In lieu of that, the GOP leadership sneaked in language at the end, that not even their own party was familiar with. Either way, that kind of win-at-all-cost politics is a bigger issue than getting Lee County’s elected officials salaries on par with the rest of the state.

That’s something we all should be thinking about when we go to the polls again – But that’s Beside the Point.

Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-owner of the Pen City Current. He can be reached at Charles.V@pencitycurrent.com.

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