HUNTSVILLE — With the 2018 general election quickly nearing, several dozen candidates have lined up to seek a variety of county-wide and district-level offices in Scott County. As the campaign heats up through the summer months leading up to the August 2 election, it will be a high-risk battle — most candidates will sink thousands of dollars into marketing materials and advertising to take their campaign messages to voters — but with great risk comes great reward.
In the first of a series of articles focusing on the looming August general election, the Independent Herald is taking a look at the salaries of Scott County’s elected county-wide office-holders. In general, the salaries of full-time elected officials are higher than just the majority of private-sector jobs. In fact, the salaries are more than twice Scott County’s median household income of $30,897, according to U.S. census data.
The salaries are set by the state — not at the local level — and are designed to provide wages that are competitive with private-sector jobs of similar nature for qualified professionals. And while the salaries of elected officials generally represent a significant pay raise for the people who ascend to those offices, that provides incentive for qualified candidates to step out of their comfort zone in the private sector, taking jobs that are very much in the public eye, with little job security beyond that afforded by four-year election cycles.
Unlike private-sector jobs, where performance typically provides a comfortable level of job security, elected officials often find themselves fighting to keep their job every four years. Court clerks and similar office-holders find themselves facing less competition each election cycle; the only two incumbents within those offices up for election this year — Circuit Court Clerk Donnie Phillips and Trustee Jimmy D. Byrd — are running unopposed. But the three highest-paid office-holders — county mayor, road superintendent and sheriff — are almost assured of competition each election cycle.
That means office-holders often find themselves engaged in a costly bid to keep their job every four years. Elections aren’t cheap. Between t-shirts and related marketing materials, roadside signs, billboards, and advertising both in print and on radio, the cost of a successful campaign for county-wide office can easily exceed $10,000. One candidate for county-wide office in the 2018 cycle told the Independent Herald that he anticipates spending about $20,000 on his campaign; a candidate in the 2014 election estimated that it would take approximately $25,000 to be successful. In local elections where campaign contributions are scarce, candidates often dip into their savings or take out small loans to fund their campaigns.
As is the case with most private-sector jobs in Scott County, elected officials can count on making less money here than their counterparts in more urban areas. While the state dictates salaries of elected office-holders, those salaries are based on population size. For example, the sheriff of Knox County makes nearly double the sheriff of Scott County.
With a population of just over 22,000, Scott County falls within the second-to-lowest tier on the state’s salary tier for elected officials, which covers all elected officials in counties with populations greater than 12,000 but fewer than 23,000. Office-holders here earn the same salary as office-holders in Fentress and Morgan counties. However, they earn nearly 10 percent less than office-holders in Campbell County, which has a population of just over 40,000, and about eight percent more than office-holders in Pickett County, which has a population of just about 5,000.
While state law provides leeway for each county’s legislative body to increase elected officials’ salary beyond the state minimum, Scott County does not. Elected officials here make the state-mandated minimum salary.
The same law, T.C.A. 8-24-102, dictates that the county mayor be the highest-paid elected office-holder in the county, and that his salary be at least five percent higher than any other office-holder. The University of Tennessee’s County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) points out that if a county chooses to pay its sheriff more than the state minimum, it must increase its mayor’s salary accordingly. The legislation also dictates that the sheriff and road superintendent make 10 percent more than the county’s general office-holders, such as trustee and court clerks.
For fiscal year 2018-2019, which begins July 1, the Scott County Mayor is set to earn $83,238 as the county’s highest-paid office-holder. The Scott County Road Superintendent and Sheriff will earn $79,276. The Trustee, Circuit Court Clerk, County Clerk and Register of Deeds will earn $72,069, as will the Assessor of Property, which is not an office that appears on the 2018 ballot.
State law also provides for office-holders to receive a pay increase each year, which is determined by the pay raise of state employees from the preceding year. In counties with populations exceeding the state median — which is 31,807 — the pay raise is equal to the percentage of the state employees’ pay raise, which for FY 2018-2019 will be 4.66 percent. For counties, like Scott County, with a population below the state median, the pay raise is equal to the dollar amount of the increase in the minimum salary in the county with the median population. The only stipulation is that office-holders’ salaries cannot exceed a five percent increase in a single year.
Using those state-mandated guidelines, the county mayor will receive a raise of $3,912 in FY 2018-2019, while the sheriff and road superintendent will receive a raise of $3,726 and the remaining full-time office-holders will receive a raise of $3,387.
These automatic pay raises are sometimes a part of Scott County Commission’s annual budget discussions, as the Commission’s Budget Committee wrestles with presenting a budget that will be fully funded by tax revenues. While the state sets office-holders’ salaries, it does not provide funding for the annual pay raises — leaving that up to the county. In FY 2018-2019, state-mandated raises for the county’s elected office-holders will amount to just over $28,000 for Scott County. Throw in the raise for the administrator of elections, which is an appointed position but one with a salary that is tied to that of the constitutional offices, and the amount for the raises will be just over $30,000 — or the equivalent of roughly one cent on the property tax rate.