BY MICHAEL WALTON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County commissioners are preparing to make budget reductions that could lead to employee layoffs and reduced county services, but their own compensation and benefits appear to be safe.
The county board’s seven elected members are on pace to collect tens of thousands of dollars in compensation beyond their base salaries during 2013, county documents show. They’re collectively set to pocket more than $113,000 from county taxpayers, and thus far in 2013 they’ve piled up an additional $26,000 in conference and travel expenses.
Commission Chair Herb Lemcool said he’s “fairly comfortable” with commissioners’ 2013 compensation.
“I think there should be some discussing it, but I am happy with the compensation and the amount of work it takes to be a commissioner,” Lemcool said.
Not everyone agrees. Bob Donick, a business representative for Teamsters Local 214, a union that represents some county employees, questioned the thousands of dollars in extra cash board members pocket for attending meetings, as well as their cumulative $26,000 in travel and conference bills.
“There’s people that I represent who don’t even make $26,000 a year, and if they do, it’s barely,” Donick said.
Lemcool and other board members proposed only minor potential changes to their compensation, despite a pledge they made to review every county department in 2014 in a search for areas to cut spending. The pledge surfaced when commissioners passed an 11th-hour, 2014 budget that tapped into nearly a $1 million in cash reserves to shore up a deficit that’s poised to grow in coming years if board members don’t address the county’s unfunded retirement liabilities.
Donick said he asked commissioners — to no avail — to review their own compensation during budget cuts in 2011, when the board fired 11 custodians in favor of contracted custodial services.
“Nothing was ever done,” he said.
Commissioners are considered full-time county employees. Most are paid an annual salary of $7,000, with the vice chairman receiving an extra $500 and the chairman an extra $1,000. They also receive retirement benefits and health, dental and vision insurance, though they can opt out of county-funded insurance in exchange for a $2,000 cash payment.
Board members also are paid reimbursements for attending meetings — called per diems payments.They can collect $35 for each meeting they attend, such as committee assignment and township meetings, with a $90-per day cap on per diems.
Taxpayers will spend the greatest amount on Lemcool, who’s on pace to take home about $20,000 in compensation in 2013. He collected $6,000 in per diems, $4,600 in insurance costs and $1,200 in retirement benefits during the first 11 months of the year, in addition to his $8,000 salary.
Commissioners Larry Inman and Charlie Renny were the next two highest earners, each with total compensation amounts of about $19,000, including respective per diem payments of $6,000 and nearly $7,000 through the end of November.
Board member Addison Wheelock Jr. was the low earner on the board with his compensation totaling about $13,000. Commissioners Christine Maxbauer, Dan Lathrop and Dick Thomas each earned about $14,000.
Ideas floated by board members to reduce compensation costs included capping county-paid travel and conference attendance — or possibly eliminating the practices all together — and reducing the number of the commission’s committee meetings to reduce per diems.
But most commissioners contend they are fairly compensated.
”I believe that I should be paid for what I do, for the actual work I am performing, and I support per diems for that reason and I always have,” said Maxbauer, who collected about $5,500 in per diem payments through November. “For anyone who believes being a county commissioner is a part-time job, it’s not.”
Inman contended he works an average of 40 to 50 hours per week in his commission role.
He and other board members got little sympathy from Donick.
“Maybe they do work that long, but before they ran for election they knew what they were getting in to,” Donick said.
Board members said the county has reduced commission costs in recent years by eliminating a spousal insurance option, capping salary and per diem payment amounts since 2001, and reducing the overall number of board members from nine to seven.
Inman said commissioners’ compensation is fair, given how other elected board members from similar counties are paid.
”I think we’re right on average,” he said.