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Council reverses decision on assessor pay increase


Bartels calls giving raise to incumbent to run again an 'ethical dilemma'


October 16, 2013
The Crawford County Council, at its regular meeting last Tuesday night at the judicial complex in English, reversed its decision to give the county assessor an almost $3,000 pay increase for 2014. The change of heart came after further discussion of the matter, including a letter from one council member to the others that questioned the integrity of the earlier decision and offered the opinion of two attorneys with the state.

The discussion began when council president Jerry Brewer, who, at last month's 2014 budget session, proposed bumping Assessor Tammy Proctor's base salary from its current $27,124 to $30,000 to entice her to run for another four-year term in 2014. In making the proposal, Brewer had said the state now requires assessor candidates to have Level 3 certification, which few people in the state, and none in the county, to his knowledge, have. However, current assessors with Level 2 certification, like Proctor, will be grandfathered in for another term, he said.

Otherwise, Brewer said at the time, the state could force the county to contract with someone to the position. Not only would that contract likely cost far more than $30,000, but the person appointed probably would not have ties to the county, he added.

"That was an emphasis on my part to see that the county had someone local to do that," he said last Tuesday.

District 3 Councilman Steve Bartels, who at the September meeting disagreed with increasing the base pay and instead supported a graduated pay schedule based upon the levels of certification, then gave the other six council members a copy of a letter he wrote to them.

"I am concerned over the decision to raise the Assessors [sic] base pay, realizing that position and just about every other county position deserves a pay increase," the letter stated. "My opposition is because of the means of using taxpayer money to influence or even discuss the promise of a pay increase to get anyone to run for a political office. Even under the cloak of 'the best interest of the county'. This is another prime reason why Americans have so much animosity towards politicians."

Bartels, in his letter, said the premise on which the council made its decision was inaccurate, that the state "will not and cannot appoint our county Assessor, nor force upon us a state contract employee for this position," according to inquiries he made of Cathy Wolter, counsel for the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance, and Bradley King, counsel for the Secretary of State, Election Division.

"This Council deliberated a long time, with several outside speakers, against an over four hundred dollar base raise to another court house [sic] position that was influenced by State level certifications," Bartels wrote. "But this three thousand dollar raise, based on a promise to get someone to run for a political office met with only my opposition. In my opinion this is a moral and ethical dilemma.

"I have received calls and talked to several people upset and fed up with this kind of politics and they end the conversation with 'things will never change.' I ask you to reconsider the base raise and consider providing tax payer [sic] reward to this position based on State level certifications and not paying anyone to run for a political office!"

Bartels told the rest of the council last week that the county has potential options, but when asked what they are, he said he didn't want to waste anyone's time outlining them unless there was interest in reversing the pay increase, only saying the state "will not come in and cannot come in under the (Indiana) Constitution" and appoint an assessor.

"But what are our options?" District 1 Councilman Joey Robinson asked again.

Robinson said he researched the matter and learned there are 317 people in the state with the Level 3 certification. Backing up Brewer's thinking at the September meeting, he said none live in Crawford County, adding that it would reason that most are from the Indianapolis and Chicago areas. Although he admitted that he wasn't certain of the number, he believed only 16 are from bordering counties. Robinson added that, since it is expensive to take the classes needed for the certification, most people who have it likely already have other jobs that require it.

"So, that's going to cut your 317 pool down more," he said. "To me, if it says they need a Level 3 certification and there are only 317 in the entire state, that's not a position you're going to be able to get for what we're paying or even proposing to pay."

Council attorney Marcus Burgher IV said it is true that new assessor candidates must have a Level 3 certification, but a person can attain the Level 3 certification first in order to run for office then get their Level 1 and 2 certifications. The certifications do not have to be attained linearly, which would be impossible before the filing deadline early next year, he said.

Brewer reiterated his reasoning for proposing the pay increase to the current assessor.

"All we had to go on is what we knew, and maybe we were mistaken," he said.

Following a motion from Robinson to hear the county's options, Bartels said, if neither the current assessor nor any qualified candidate ran for the position, she could remain in the position, according to the state's "holdover clause." He said another option is she could quit and the deputy assessor, who has a Level 2 certification, could be appointed or, since the assessor is a Democrat, the Crawford County Democratic Central Committee could fill the position through a caucus. While that person would not be able to run for the office, unless they had a Level 3 certification, they would be able to fill the position indefinitely until someone with a Level 3 certification did run. Finally, Bartels said, state lawmakers could revisit the issue.

"Well, you can bank on the assumption that the legislation will change, but I prefer not to," Robinson said.

Bartels said, while it makes sense that the legislature would revisit the matter, he isn't assuming that it will change the law.

"Those are our options, and it's not that we have to pay somebody money to get them to run again for a public office," he said. "I just don't feel comfortable and did not vote for that because I just don't think that's the business we want to get in to, paying somebody to run for public office."

"I think you took that totally out of context," Brewer said.

"I may have," Bartels admitted.

Brewer again said his goal was to make sure the county had a qualified local person in the position.

"I don't want anybody coming in here and running (the office) and not being sensitive to Crawford County," he said.

"That's not even an option. The state's not coming in," Bartels responded.

District 2 Councilman Jim Taylor added that, regardless of whether the council increases the assessor's pay, he believes it did so a year early, since she has a year left on her current term.

Although the council approved the salary increase during its budget session last month, it still hadn't signed the 2014 salary ordinance, which was on the agenda that night. Therefore, it could change the 2014 salary back to $27,124, which Bartels made a motion to do.

Before a vote could be taken, however, Robinson again addressed a part of Bartels' letter.

"I still say that it is under no cloak of the best interest of the county, as you put in your letter," he said.

"My justification for using that in quotes, in all honesty, is that that was the term that was in the paper," Bartels said, adding that, when he talked to people, "that was their quote back to me. They were regurgitating the newspaper, and I put that in there for emphasis. It was meant to instill thought. It wasn't meant to irritate."

In that article, printed Sept. 18, Brewer, who noted not having anyone in the assessor's office would delay property tax bills being mailed, said, "I'm looking at the best interest of the county."

Brewer last week added he remembers the problems caused by an outside firm not completing the property tax reassessment on time several years ago.

Following a call for a vote by Brewer, the council unanimously approved reversing the September decision, rolling the assessor's annual base pay back to $27,124.

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