This November, Champaign County voters approved a referendum that changed the county’s form of government from a township to a County Executive without home rule. Only one other county in the state, Will, operates using a County Executive form of government.

This change in government created a new countywide elected official: the County Executive. The County Executive will function like a governor with the power to hire new staff, including their own attorney, and to veto county board votes.

This coming Tuesday, September 12th, the Champaign County Board plans to reexamine the proposed $117,269 annual salary for the County Executive. This salary would make Champaign’s County Executive one of the better paid elected officials in our area (see Table 1). As a point of reference, the median household income in Champaign County is $46,495.

Republican Gordy Hulten, current Champaign County Clerk and candidate for County Executive, has stated that the proposed salary of $117,269 is appropriate. Specifically, Hulten finds the salary fitting due to the “scope of the office” and because “the county executive, as least as I envision it, will be a driver of cost savings in Champaign County." Hulten also said he expects to hire staff to assist him with his duties. The costs associated with his proposed staff are not yet known.

Democratic candidate Darlene Kloeppel, retired after more than 15 years as the Director of Community Services for the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, has said that a lower salary would be more appropriate. "I think there are people willing to work for the benefit of their community either part-time, or full-time if necessary, for salaries that are not necessarily CEO salaries,” Kloeppel said.

The proposed $117,269 salary came after two previous Board motions calling for lower salaries failed to garner enough votes. The first motion came from Democratic Board Chair Pius Weibel for $29,274, and the second from Democratic Board Member James Tinsley for $70,000.

How are the elected officials salaries decided by the Champaign County Board?

A review of Champaign County Board meeting minutes suggests that salary numbers are set largely by comparing Champaign County’s salaries to those in other “comparable” counties. When reached for comment, Joshua Hartke, a Democrat on the County Board said, "I don't feel the county comparison is really the best method [of setting salaries for countywide elected officials]. We aren't competing with Peoria and Rock Island for people willing to run for public office. However, when we hire credentialed professionals, we are effectively competing nationwide. That is where our salary focus should be."

How should we decide on an appropriate salary?

Perhaps the first questions we should ask are:

  1. If we pay elected officials more money, will that result in measureable benefits?

  2. Does our community have too few quality candidates running for office, and so do we need to further incentivize public service?

  3. Will higher salaries lead to the types of candidates who can, as Hulten suggests, “be a driver of cost savings in Champaign County?” (If being a “driver of cost savings” is an accepted top priority?)

As residents of a university town, it makes sense for us to look to the academic research for answers. I am not a political economist, but from what I found, the answers to our questions are mixed. For instance, a 2015 study of Members of the European Parliament found that higher salaries attracted candidates with weaker educational backgrounds. However, higher salaries also increased the number of candidates running for re-election, resulting in an increase in tenure and, by extension, legislative productivity.

In another example, a 2003 study of United States Governors conducted by a researcher from the London School of Economics also found mixed results. This study concluded that politicians’ pay may impact their behavior by “changing incentives” or by altering the pool of candidates who run for office. However, the author ultimately concluded that politician’s pay is probably just a “small part of what motivates politicians to enter [office] and to act in the voters’ interest.” Higher salaries might make a small difference, the author reasoned, but they are probably not be the best way to ensure good outcomes for voters.

I found one exception in a 2009 working paper (not peer-reviewed) describing research conducted by members of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Their study of Brazilian local municipalities found that higher salaries led to increased competition for public office, better candidate pools, and positive impacts on politicians’ performance.

Ultimately, however, the authors of the Brazil paper noted that it’s hard to prove that a higher salary improves politician performance because voters have a relatively weak ability to monitor and hold political office holders accountable. In a traditional employment setting, employees regularly report to, and receive direct feedback from, their supervisors. By contrast, the relationships between voters and elected officials are more distant and can be obscured by layers of paid staff and/or messaging. This makes it harder for voters to provide meaningful feedback outside of the election cycle, or demand that politicians “earn” their salaries.

In the end, while salary may have an impact on politician performance, other factors are probably more important.

Therefore the County Board, and our community, must consider this: what measureable benefits will we get from paying the new County Executive $117,269? Will the addition of this salary, and the (as of yet unknown) salaries of the County Executive’s staff, make it more likely that the County will spend resources in ways that directly benefit the community? Or, could we set the salaries lower, invest the savings in projects that will directly benefit residents, and get the same (or better) outcomes?

The County Board is set to vote on the County Executive salary this coming Tuesday, September 12th. If you’d like to make your views on the County Executive salary known, contact the County Board.
 

TABLE 1: Champaign-Urbana Area Elected Officials Salaries

Elected Officials

Current Annual Salary

Governor of Illinois

$177,412

United States Senator

$174,000

United States House of Representatives

$174,000

Illinois State's Attorney

$166,508

Illinois Attorney General

$156,541

Illinois Secretary of State

$156,541

Illinois Treasurer

$135,669

Illinois Lieutenant Governor

$135,669

Proposed County Executive

$117,269

Champaign County Sherrif

$114,969

Champaign County Treasurer

$91,942

Champaign County Clerk

$91,942

Clerk of the Circuit Court (County)

$91,872

Champaign County Recorder

$89,816

Champaign County Coroner

$89,816

Champaign County Auditor

$89,816

IL State Senator

$67,836

IL State House Representative

$67,836

Mayor Urbana (full-time)

$61,690

Mayor Champaign (part-time)

$35,000

Mayor of Mahomet

$12,000

Champaign County Board Chair

$12,000

Mayor of Savoy

$8,000

City Council Urbana

$6,145

City Council Champaign

$5,000

Champaign County Board Members (annual max if attend all meetings)

$2,500 - $3,000

Unit 4 School Board Members

$0

Champaign Park District Board Members

$0

Urbana School Board Members

$0

Urbana Park District Board Members

$0

Mahomet School Board Members

$0

Champaign County Forest Preserve District Board Members

$0

 


UPDATE: A previous version of this article listed the Champaign County Sheriff's salary as $119,000 when it is in fact $114,969.  The Circuit Clerk was listed at $91,942 instead of $91,872. I regret the errors. The countywide elected official salaries listed in the current table were sourced from: http://www.co.champaign.il.us/foia/salariesover75000.pdf with the exception of the County Recorder of Deeds, which is not included in the above information. That salary information was provided by a Champaign County Board member. Also note, there are increases to countywide salaries coming soon. Those are listed on page 67 of the August 15, 2017 Champaign County Board agenda.: https://www.champaigncountyclerk.com/county_board/meetings/2017_meetings/docs/agendas/08_15_2017_agenda.pdf