If Jim Skelton were to move across the street and serve Sedgwick County instead of Wichita, he'd earn about $50,000 more a year.
As a City Council member, Skelton earns $34,865. If he were elected to the County Commission — he is considering a run for the seat held by Gwen Welshimer — he'd make $83,718.
The salary gap between City Council and commission members is long-standing.
The county considers commissioners full-time employees. The perception has been that the City Council job is part time, although the city classifies council members and the mayor as "full-time limited" workers, employed until their term expires or they don't get re-elected.
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Commissioners and City Council members make decisions about county and city policies and projects and how to spend taxpayer dollars. Each group meets once a week; members also attend meetings and workshops with staff members.
Skelton said he certainly doesn't see his job on the council as part time.
"It's a job. It takes what it takes. I don't look at anything as being part time," Skelton said. "It's not anywhere in the description that it's part time."
Across the country, wages vary greatly for county commissioners. Some are part time and aren't paid at all. Others, such as those in San Diego and San Bernardino counties in California, make more than $140,000.
"It varies all over the place," said Jacqueline Byers, director of research for the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C. "Most counties give commissioners something. Some only give them a per diem for the days they attend meetings. Others give a nominal salary. Some others have them as full-time employees of the county, and they pay them accordingly. The reality is it depends on the size of the government and the services they provide."
A salary snapshot by the association of 47 county governments showed that 18 paid commissioners less than $25,000, nine paid them between $25,000 and $50,000, 18 paid them between $50,000 and $100,000, and two paid them more than $100,000.
All of Kansas' 105 counties pay their commissioners, said Randall Allen, executive director of the Kansas Association of Counties. Pay in Kansas ranges from a low of $8,307 in Chautauqua County to a high of $86,945 in Johnson County. Sedgwick County commissioners are the second-highest paid.
The county's newest commissioner, Karl Peterjohn, a longtime taxpayer advocate, noted that commissioners voted this year to freeze salaries for all county employees making more than $75,000 a year, which includes themselves.
"I will say that for the record that I was a bit surprised when I got my full first paycheck as a county commissioner because it was larger than I thought it would be," Peterjohn said.
However, he said, "I've certainly been busier as a county commissioner than I thought I would be."
A throwback to history
Commissioner salaries are, in part, a throwback to history, said John Nalbandian, a public administration professor at the University of Kansas.
"They are based on the idea that there is no chief administrative officer," he said. "In the old days, there were three county commissioners and each commissioner was elected for a different slot, maybe administration or public works. It made sense to give them some money. The logic of paying that kind of money when there's a chief administrative officer is kind of sketchy. It's just a carryover. That's what it is."
Meanwhile, city council members historically have been part time, encouraged not to make a living solely from public service so as not to have undue influence, Nalbandian said.
"It was a goal of the reformers that the council would be part time because they wanted to contrast between a group of legislative officials who were full time and made it their full-time job, which led to control over contracts and party politics. When the plan was originated as a reform, they said, 'Look it, the role of a governing body should not be to get involved in day-to-day work. We don't need that. We want a chief administrative officer, we'll call him a city manager, who has no political role."
Both the city and county have administrative managers: Robert Layton is the city manager, and William Buchanan is the county manager. The county hired its first full-time manager to handle day-to-day operations in the mid-1980s.
Elected city officials, Nalbandian said, "add value by thinking about the big issues and making decisions about policy."
Is there any evidence that salary plays a role in an elected official's effectiveness or success in public service?
"I don't think we know that empirically," Nalbandian said.
By paying county commissioners more than $83,000, Nalbandian said, "What you're saying is, one, this is a full-time job, and two, it's not only a full-time job, it's a very good salary for a full-time job. It's more than several departments at WSU pay incoming faculty. It's more than what KU pays incoming faculty. And that's with no knowledge or skills required. For some people, this would be the best job they ever had in terms of salary and benefits."
Service over salary
Skelton said if he runs for County Commission, it will be because he thinks he can make a difference in the county.
But he also said the salary is attractive.
"Who wouldn't say it doesn't add a little more attraction to the job? Who's going to deny that and be honest?" Skelton said.". . . But that's not the primary reason I'll run if I do."
Wichita school board member Betty Arnold has filed to run for the County Commission 1st District seat held by Dave Unruh, who is seeking re-election.
School board members are volunteers and not paid. Arnold said she doesn't keep track of her hours, but, "if I were to guesstimate, I bet there are times that it's 15 to 20 hours a week."
Arnold, who retired in September as an auditor with the Kansas Department of Labor, said the money has not influenced her decision to run for commission.
Welshimer, who is seeking re-election in the 5th District, said board members typically work more than 40 hours a week. She said she often does county work at night and early in the morning from home before she goes to the courthouse.
Former commissioner Ben Sciortino said he believes board members' salaries are justified.
"It is a full-time job," he said. "If we're doing the job we were elected to do, we're working 50 to 60 hours a week."
He noted that some county departments — the county counselor, appraiser and director of public works — report directly to commissioners while city departments report to the manager.
"It's a different type of job," Sciortino said, ". . . this is a full-time job, and I think it deserves having a salary that would attract someone interested in doing a full-time job."
Former City Council member Sharon Fearey, who said she is considering running for the 4th District commission seat held by Kelly Parks, said the city job was full time.
"The pay certainly wasn't the reason that I did it and not the reason that I'm probably going to run for County Commission," she said. "You do it to serve."
Fearey said her husband's salary allowed her to work full time as a City Council member and not worry about the salary.
Fearey said she wasn't concerned about people running for commission just for the salary.
"You have to want to serve and have that dedication."