Legislative Salaries

The Chemung County Legislature’s ad hoc Compensation & Benefits Committee held its initial meeting last night. The Committee is comprised of five legislators including John Pastrick, Mike Smith, Rodney Strange, Bill McCarthy and myself. Together we are charged with evaluating the salary and benefit package offered to legislators and recommending what changes, if any, should be made.

Resolution 18-640 was passed last December designating the salary and benefits offered to Chemung County Legislators this year.

Despite the wording of the resolution, legislators are permitted to opt-out of the health insurance benefit if they have coverage from another source. Legislators who opt-out are entitled to a $1,500 reimbursement check. I chose to opt out because (a) my family receives Chemung County health insurance through my husband’s employment; and (b) I don’t believe public service positions such as this should come with insurance benefits. I also declined to accept the reimbursement based on (b).

Tony Pucci, a member of the Town of Veteran’s Planning Board and candidate for Legislator in 2018 wrote a Star Gazette Your Turn article entitled “Chemung County legislators make too much”, found here. In it Pucci stated:

The recent proposal to increase salaries for legislators in St. Lawrence County provides some thought-provoking comparisons. According to figures from 2015, Chemung County had a population of 87,071; St. Lawrence County had a population of 111,007. Yet, St. Lawrence County legislators receive a salary of $9,000 that has not been raised in 18 years.

Some of the responses to the suggestion of an increase are worth a closer look. In an article in the Watertown Daily Times on Nov. 1, 2017, Kevin D. Acres (R), chairman of the legislature, said, “I certainly cannot support this when I feel so strongly that we are so overtaxed in New York.” Legislator John H. Burke (R) also spoke against the increase: “I think for most of us, being on the legislature is a matter of civic pride.”

It is unfortunate that most of our local officials do not feel the same way.
Not only did the Chemung County legislators vote themselves a pay increase, they also voted on Resolution No. 17-629, which establishes the new salary for the county executive at $166,273. This resolution passed by a vote of 15-0. That salary places our county executive as one of the most highly compensated county executives in the state.

By comparison, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott earns $150,000. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker makes $151,800. Florida Gov. Rick Scott receives $130,273. Given the responsibilities of governing a state with a population in the millions and a budget in the billions, what possible justification is there for the executive of a small upstate county to have a salary that is higher than theirs? In fact, the Chemung County Executive’s $166,273 salary is higher than that received by 41 of the nation’s 50 governors.

For the past decade Chemung County’s population has been declining, yet the Legislature has continued to increase its pay nearly every year – something I feel is unjustified and inappropriate. This imbalance will become even more striking after the 2020 census, as it will likely show our county’s population has fallen further.

The graphs below provide some comparative data related to population and pay for charter counties in New York that have an executive and legislature:

The average number of constituents per district in these selected counties is 22,895, yet in Chemung County it is just 5,900:

A document we were provided last night with the charter counties highlighted in the first:

Rodney Strange had what I thought was a very creative idea at the meeting. He suggested the Legislature vote on a salary and benefits package near the end of each term, at the conclusion of either the 3rd or 4th year. The agreed-upon package would remain untouched for the next full term.

The video embedded below is of last night’s meeting. It’s not the easiest to hear and was oriented improperly during the live-stream (ugh technology!), but provides good an overview of where people stand right now. The Committee meets again on August 5th at 6:00 in the Hazlett Building’s 5th Floor conference room. It is open to the public and will be live-streamed on Chemung County Matters’ Facebook page.

Please share your thoughts ahead of the meeting! As with everything else, this is a community issue and your feedback is very important.

Prevailing Wage

“Prevailing wage” is the pay rate set by state law for work on public work projects. This applies to all laborers, workers or mechanics employed under a public work contract. The prevailing wage rate is set by New York’s Department of Labor and varies depending on the region of New York where work is being performed.

In New York contractors must pay workers prevailing wage for all public works projects. According to the Department of Labor:

A three-prong test is applied to determine whether a particular project is public work and subject to the prevailing wage requirements of Labor Law § 220 and article I, § 17 of the State Constitution:

– A public agency must be a party to a contract involving the employment of laborers, workmen, or mechanics.

– The contract must concern a project that primarily involves construction-like labor and is paid for by public funds.

– The primary objective or function of the work product must be the use or other benefit of the general public.

Last spring the New York Legislature considered a bill to expand the prevailing wage requirement to all projects that are awarded more than $750,000 in (or 30%) in funds, subsidies or tax exemptions by New York State or a local authority such as an Industrial Development Agency. In other words, this bill would require developers that receive 3/4 of a million dollars or more in taxpayer-funded assistance to pay their workers a prevailing wage as opposed to accepting these substantial awards and paying their workers less than what the state has determined is fair.

Critics argue wages should not be set by the government but rather by the the market. I absolutely agree with this economic philosophy when it comes to purely private transactions.

However, that position falls apart when $750,000 or more in government – i.e. taxpayer – funding is involved as these quasi-public projects are built on anything but free-market capitalism. Developers should not be permitted to receive all of the benefits without being required to share some of them with their workers.

The bill did not pass, but it is likely to come up again in coming years. An in-depth article explaining one perspective of what happened is found here.

I was very surprised to find this issue on last night’s Multi-Services Committee Agenda, found here. Specifically, we were asked to vote on this route slip:

At the onset, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to vote in opposition of a bill that did not pass. If it is reintroduced next year, the New York State Legislature will undoubtedly make changes and engage in negotiations to give it a better chance for success. As such, we cannot determine whether we are for or against a bill that currently does not exist.

Second, this route slip did not have a resolution attached, but rather an email and memorandum from some municipal groups. As a legislator, I was unsure exactly what I was being called upon to support. The attachments to the route slip are embedded below.

Finally – and most importantly – it is disappointing to learn some county leaders do not support prevailing wage for projects that receive more than $750,000 in taxpayer-funded subsidies. It is my understanding that the resolution was proposed jointly by County Executive Chris Moss and County Legislative Chairperson Dave Manchester. As a member of the Chemung County IDA, I am very much in support of business development and understand the success that can come from offering economic incentives. However, workers are a key part of that equation and should not be left out in this way.

The resolution did not make it out of Committee based, it appeared, on timeliness grounds. There was very limited discussion of its underlying merits.

City-County Committee

The City-County Committee was concluded its report wherein it makes numerous recommendations for ways the two entities can work together with mutual benefits. We are presenting it to Moss, Elmira Mayor Dan Mandell and Elmira Manager Mike Collins tomorrow, followed shortly by a release to the public. Stay tuned for details.

Christina Sonsire