Comp Board mandate is a 10-mile run to go two blocks - Beside the Point

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I sat in a meeting last week that was a source of frustration for me as writer and a county resident.

I try to keep my Sunday writings loose and light, but I gotta talk a bit about Senate File 342, a bill called "Back the Blue" that was signed into law early this year.

The bill does some firm things for our state's law enforcement officers including giving them support in day-to-day operations, while also putting what can only be called "optical pressure" on county officials to bump county sheriff salaries.

Pen City Current approaches our coverage of law enforcement with a modicum of respect, while asserting our right, as someone minding the public's business, to be where they are and report on what they do.

One sticking point to that is an effort that seems to have been successful by Keokuk Police Department Police Chief Dave Hinton to block public access to scanner chatter on Keokuk police operations.

It's a bit of a digression here, but we have a huge problem with that. The police department doesn't own those airwaves - the public does. And although we whole-heartedly agree that having the public snooping around and heading off breaking police operations isn't productive for the law enforcement efforts, it is a curse that's been around for all law enforcement administrators since the advent of the radio scanner.

But fortunately the state legislature hasn't yet, anyway, made that information part of Chapter 21 or 22 restrictions on records and investigation. I'll save the tagline for the end of the piece. You know what it is.

But this Compensation Board meeting Wednesday night had me a bit uncomfortable in my seat. The state mandates that the Comp Board set the sheriff's salary at a rate comparable to administrators of such state law enforcement agencies as the state patrol and Department of Criminal Investigations. The new law also says the board must incorporate police chiefs in cities that have similar populations to any respective county, into figuring the new rate.

Local attorney Rich Fehseke, representing Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber on the board, had come up with a formula that incorporated police chief salaries of cities close to Lee County in population and DCI and Iowa State Patrol administrator salaries. That ad-hoc formula represented a 45.4% increase in salary for Weber.

His salary is tied to Chief Deputy Will Conlee, Capt. Craig Burch, and Jail Administrator John Canida by policy.

That's a hefty pay raise to be sure, even Weber acknowledged that and said it put the panel in a pickle. But he reminded them that it wasn't a local request but a state mandate to correct salaries that don't reflect the work the state's sheriffs do.

Raise or no raise, it's a 10-mile run to go two blocks. This is what people hate about politics. Why pass legislation aimed at resetting salaries, when there's no chance of it resetting salaries? These county boards not only will have trouble finding that money without cuts elsewhere, probably within that budget, but how do they explain it to an Auditor or Recorder or Treasurer who deal with the public on regular bases and might see a 3% raise?

It's a tough call. Put on a vest and snap on a gun belt. I think if we're all being transparent - and Lee County Recorder Nancy Booten said it best when she said she couldn't do that work out of fear of what's behind the door - we'd settle for the smaller salary for the safer work.

But now, also a new state law, County Auditor Denise Fraise can technically be thrown in jail if one of her election officials goofs on a signature or verification that doesn't get caught. That's ratcheting up the rhetoric and penalties for a cost of living increase?

And the really weird part is that the same law says that county Boards of Supervisors can all but disregard the recommendation. But the one catch that may reset the county salary anyway is that if the Supervisors move the recommendation back down to say 5%, the 10% recommendation for the rest of the elected staff, would have to be reduced by the same amount.

A 5% raise for the sheriff would result in about a 1.1% increase for the other elected officials. A 5% raise would be 1/9th of what the comp board recommended and 1/9th of a 10% increase is just over 1%, which probably wouldn't go over well in the county offices.

It would seem that cutting the comp board's recommendation in half would yield a 22.5% increase for the sheriff's salary and leave a 5% increase for the other elected officials, which by most reports is what the cost of living increase will be calculated for in 2022. If the Board decides on a 3% increase for the elected staff to stick to precedent over the past few years, then the sheriff would get about 1/3 of the 45% increase or 15%.

But if the state really wanted to bump the rates of the sheriffs' pay, they should have put some money behind it. They have a surplus, they clearly want to get law enforcement's backs while making sure they aren't using a choke hold. So use some of that surplus to help fund the pay raises and take pressure off local taxpayers to foot the bill.

To us this isn't an issue of local politics, but state politics. That part of the Back the Blue bill didn't even go through any committees, but was added on the floor vote. Clearly the diligence wasn't there on this one and when you look at the potential cost for the state to get across that finish line in all counties, they should have created a supplemental funding stream.

If you haven't heard, or read, city, state, and Amtrak officials will be bringing an Amtrak train in from Galesburg on Friday at 6 p.m. to the newly relocated Amtrak Depot in Riverview Park. The mayor will step off the train, after the media so we can get a great photo, at 6 p.m. to the earned pomp and revelry that comes with about 15 years of planning, negotiating and pleading at all levels to get the project completed.

This a strong move that adds value to the ever-changing riverfront landscape in Fort Madison, and it's something that should be attended by many, with a look to the heavens at former Mayor Steve Ireland who is most assuredly smiling down with arms folded - a job well done by all. But that's Beside the Point.

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