County compensation commission

The Guide to Michigan County Government is a great source of detailed information about the structure, function, and services provided by counties in Michigan.

County boards of commissioners in Michigan are responsible for determining the number of employees and setting compensation levels for those employees, as well as for themselves and elected officials. Pay levels can, of course, be a sticky political subject, especially when a board is setting their own compensation. Michigan counties have the option of creating a compensation commission to handle the task. Ken VerBurg, MSU professor emeritus gives us further insight into the subject in the 2007 edition of his book, Guide to Michigan County Government.

“A county board may establish a county officer’s compensation commission although the resolution is subject to referendum upon the filing of petitions with the county clerk within 60 days of the board's actions. Qualified petitions suspend the resolution until voters decide the question.

A county officer’s compensation commission consists of seven registered voters appointed by the board chair with approval of the county board. The terms are four years and are rotated so that some expire each year. When a compensation commission is first established, the chair must make the appointments within 30 days; thereafter, before October 1. Any vacancies that occur are left unfilled for the remainder of the term. A person employed by any level of government or a member of that person's immediate family is ineligible to serve.

A compensation commission's only responsibility is to set the rate of compensation for county commissioners, the board chair, and other elected county officers. (Compensation for judges is not included.) The statute requires the compensation commission to meet in even-numbered years for not more than 15 "session" days. The pay board must complete its work within 45 days of its first session. A majority of the members serving must approve any action. A few other limitations govern the action of a county compensation commission. It can raise or lower salaries as it considers appropriate. An action to reduce the compensation of an elected official during the term of office is generally prohibited. Meetings must follow OMA procedures.

The final decision on these matters, of course, remains a county board responsibility because it has the authority to overturn a compensation board's action by a two-thirds vote. The county board only considers the compensation commission actions upon a motion to reject. If the county board takes no action, the pay board's decision takes effect with the beginning of the next odd-numbered year. If the county commission rejects the action, the previous compensation remains in effect.

What are the advantages of the county officer’s compensation commission? Its main contribution at the county level, we believe, is that it provides an independent forum for the various interests to state their case. Commissioners and county officers can present their views about why and how the pay should be changed. It also puts a little "distance" between a county commission and an officer who may not necessarily get along very well with the board but who nevertheless may be doing a good job.

And, of course, it removes the county commissioners from the awkward position of having to sit in judgment on themselves, torn between a sense of fairness, the little greed that is in all of us, and the fear of losing an election because they voted for a pay raise.”

Ken goes on to talk about compensation commissions having received a mixed response from county boards. Some use it, others don’t, and some have tried and abandoned the practice. Like many other practices that counties in Michigan are empowered to use, but not required, the compensation commission is available for those counties who find it a useful way to accomplish pay decisions.

Watch for future Michigan State University Extension articles with more information about county government. Professor VerBurg’s book, Guide to Michigan County Government, Fourth Edition, is available in electronic form online on a CD or a USB drive with nearly 500 pages of detailed information about county government, with extensive footnotes to constitutional and statutory information. The update process is underway to be sure the information and statutory notations are current, with rollout of the Fifth Edition expected in fall 2016.

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