Lehigh County’s government has 2,200 employees, a $360-million budget and serves up to 350,000 people.
But the top person in that government, the county executive, is only paid $75,000 a year.
That is less than 176 other county employees are paid.
And the county executive’s salary hasn’t increased since 2006, when it was $65,000.
Those facts were presented to county commissioners Wednesday night by commissioner Daniel McCarthy, who proposes raising the executive’s annual salary to $127,500.
McCarthy introduced a bill to increase the salary in January 2014, which will be the start of a newly-elected county executive’s four-year term.
McCarthy said when he’s asked several Democrats and Republicans if they would consider running for county executive in 2013, they said: “No, I can’t, the salary is too low.”
“We are going to discourage qualified and experienced people from applying for this job by running for elective office,” warned McCarthy. “We want the voters to have the best choices possible.
“My concern is that if we don’t raise the salary, we’re not going to get good candidates for the voters to elect our next county executive.”
William Hansell, who was appointed county executive in August, has said he does not intend to seek election to the position in 2014. McCarthy said he’s also not going to run for executive.
McCarthy indicated action has to be taken on the salary this month, to implement an increase by January 2014. He said once a salary is set by commissioners, it will remain the same for that executive’s entire term in office.
Commissioners will vote on McCarthy’s proposal during their next meeting on Dec. 19. He stirred a hornet’s nest of opposition when he introduced it Wednesday.
Commissioner Percy Dougherty declared: “I am against giving the county executive even one penny more.”
“Ebenezer!” joked commissioner David Jones.
Ignoring the Scrooge reference, Dougherty continued: “This is an elected position. People know what they’re getting into when they run for the office. There are no qualifications. We could get any political hack or your local butcher, baker or candlestick maker running for this.
“The county executive should not be elected. That should be an appointed position, where you appoint someone who is an expert at running an organization of this size.”
Dougherty and other commissioners suggested the whole structure of county government should be changed. Rather than having elected county executives who are independent of commissioners, they prefer the county be run by a professional manager – a person commissioners would hire and could fire.
Dougherty said if Lehigh would have a county administrator form of government, McCarthy would be Ebenezer because $127,500 “isn’t enough to hire a professional to run a business as big as the county.”
Dougherty recommended the county clerk and solicitor confer to see what would be required to change the form of county government.
Commissioner Vic Mazziotti agreed with Dougherty about the need for that change: “We need to take whatever steps we need to take to put that before the voters.”
Mazziotti said he would be more than willing to increase the salary of a professional county manager.
McCarthy said he also would join in considering a new form of government, “but that’s not going to happen quickly.” He said in 1978 voters “enacted this form of government. And it’s probably going to be here the first Monday of 2014.”
Commissioner Michael Schware questioned how the county would pay for a county executive salary increase. “We owe it to the taxpayers to let them know what we want to see cut to pay for an increase like this. Increasing the executive’s pay sends the wrong message as we move forward. For that reason I cannot support it.”
McCarthy responded by saying commissioners can find ways to make other cuts to allow for an increased salary for the county executive when they prepare the 2014 county budget late next year.
McCarthy said he is willing to consider a lower salary than $127,500, “but it should be something more than $75,000.”
Schware said elected county executives are limited to serving eight years. “We’re not enslaving someone to a low salary for 40 years of their life.”
Commissioner Scott Ott said during 2013 budget negotiations only a few weeks ago, some commissioners were terrified that county employees were going to lose their jobs.
“There’s no way, after that process we’ve just been though, I can support increasing the pay for the executive,” said Ott. “It’s bad business. It’s a failure to lead.”
McCarthy acknowledged salary doesn’t necessarily determine the caliber of a person, but feels a higher salary will help attract the highest caliber person. He said the salary should reflect the responsibilities and duties of the position as well as “the reality of the marketplace.”
Allentown resident John Ingram told commissioners McCarthy’s proposal to raise the executive’s salary is long overdue, adding: “I know it’s not popular among your board.”
“The county executive should be paid more than anyone under him,” said Ingram.
Ingram was a candidate to be appointed county executive in summer, when commissioners selected Hansell to complete the term of elected executive Don Cunningham.
Ingram said he and the other two applicants for the job have their own businesses and Hansell was retired. “If it hadn’t been for those businesses, I doubt very seriously if any of us would have considered county executive at $75,000 a year.”
Ingram noted some school superintendents in Pennsylvania are paid much more: “$175,000 to $200,000.”
While Dougherty said elected county executives don’t even have to show up for work, Ingram said if that happens, commissioners should report that executive to the local media.