BREAKING: Allegany County legislators appear to be coming in the back door on a proposed personal wage increase next year of $3,500 each, or more than 40 percent.
In a little-known action, which appears to have been shrouded originally in secrecy, county lawmakers, by a split vote, have included the salary increase, to $12,000 annually, in a notice of public hearing on the county’s $145 million budget for next year.
The public comment session will be held at 7PM this Thursday, November 30, in the Board chambers at the County Office Building in Belmont.
The proposal provides a like increase for the chairman of the board, double the amount to regular legislators, or $24,000 annually, with the positions of majority and minority leaders of the legislative body being doubled from $300 to $600 per year.
There currently is no minority leader due to the legislative body being comprised of all Republicans, with the role of majority leader not being immediately identifiable other than in calling and apparently presiding over party legislative caucuses, or closed door meetings, normally held before each county legislative session.
Minimal public discussion
The only public discussion to the 15-member salary increases occurred at the November 8 board meeting when a resolution for Thursday’s pubic hearing was presented to the board.
Legislator Gary Barnes of Wellsville, who last year had been an unsuccessful prime advocate for a pay raise, commented that he would support the resolution, although he felt the increase was “much less” than an inflation-adjusted rate, but was “better than nothing.”
The resolution only listed suggested new salaries for board members, without any comparison information in the notice as to existing compensation.
Legislator Dwight (Mike) Healy of Belmont said he supports the move, saying he believes it “keeps everyone happy.”
Board Chair W. Brooke Harris of Alfred then said that “this decision was not made lightly by the Board,” citing increases in responsibility and workload of legislators since the last salary change 23 years ago.
He said compensation schedules in other counties were studied and that county residents will have an opportunity to comment on the proposal.
Action not unanimous
The action, however, wasn’t unanimous among legislators, with Board Vice-Chair Kevin (Fred) Demick of Angelica, Dwight Fanton of Wellsville, and James Rumfelt of Andover voting against the proposal and Adam Cyr of Bolivar absent.
Without Barnes’ comment, which initiated the additional discussion, only 130 individuals, as of today, may have seen the discussion if they viewed the entire county board meeting video on Facebook or attended the full Board session, most of which draw less than a handful of individuals without any county affiliation.
Official notices, without indication of an increase, are included in public hearing postings on the county’s website and its official newspapers which have a much diminished readership base in the county in recent years.
Back door indications
Other indicators that the wage increase was being kept under wraps until Barnes’ comments precipitated a discussion include:
– The tentative county budget allocation for legislators salaries doesn’t show an increase from last year.
The proposed salaries cost for next year would be $180,600, compared with $127,800 in 2023.
– No public discussion has been found in any official proceedings of the board.
Allegany Hope Community News, upon learning of the proposal, filed a Freedom of Information request with the county two weeks ago, requesting copies of minutes of all public meetings at which the proposal was discussed and any correspondence between or among county officials, directing a budget modification.
The county failed to respond to our request within the five days required by law and a formal appeal was filed this week.
Closed door party caucuses of legislators of the same party, where a discussion might have been held, aren’t required to be open to the public.
– Although the resolution voted on at the November 8 meeting was listed as being “offered by the Board’s Ways and Means Committee and has committee approval,” no record was readily identified where such approval was given.
In addition, no record was identified in regard to the public hearing resolution even having been offered for discussion at any Ways and Means Committee meeting.
Notices of all actions to be taken at such meetings are required, by law, to be provided to the public at least 24 hours in advance of such gatherings.
– No minutes of the November 8 Board meeting have been posted for the public on the county’s website or distributed to requesting news media, in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law which requires such action within two weeks of a meeting.
Final budget due by December 20
The county board, which received the tentative budget on November 1, after a few weeks unknown delay, will be able to modify the spending plan before final adoption, although no major changes have been made to such document in recent years.
The final date for adoption is December 20, with a special 9AM Ways and Means Committee meeting having been scheduled for that day. A Board Committee of the Whole session also is slated for Wednesday, December 6.
As reported previously, the county is proposing to divert $16 million from its escalating surplus for yet unknown purposes rather than using it for property tax relief.
The county continues to have the second highest property and third highest sales tax rates in the state.