A living wage or tax-dollar abuse? Ottawa County commissioners consider 60 percent pay hike

A living wage or tax-dollar abuse? Ottawa County commissioners consider 60 percent pay hike
A living wage or tax-dollar abuse? Ottawa County commissioners consider 60 percent pay hike

OTTAWA COUNTY, MI — Ottawa County commissioners are expected to consider a 60 percent pay hike — but is it a living wage or an abuse of tax dollars?

Since the pay-hike proposal surfaced May 2, commissioners have come out on both sides of the issue and tossed around compensation and benefit figures for other Michigan counties.

The proposal, adopted in April by the seven-member Ottawa County Officers Compensation Committee, would raise commissioner pay in 2025 from $20,844 to $33,350 and give them a $1,000 per month “healthcare coverage” stipend.

At the same time, the board chair’s pay would rise from $27,127 to $43,403 in 2025; with the vice chair’s pay going from $21,523 to $34,436 in 2025. Both would also receive the monthly stipend.

County commissioners must vote on the issue for the raises to take effect. That could happen as early as the regular board meeting on Monday, May 13.

Commissioner Jacob Bonnema, who split last year from the board’s controversial majority faction known as Ottawa Impact, called the proposal an “abuse of our tax dollars” in a post to Facebook.

But Commissioner Sylvia Rhodea, in a lengthy statement posted online, said the current commissioner salary is a barely a living wage and only $400 above the federal poverty rate for a family of two.

“It is concerning that loud voices insist Ottawa County continue to pay its commissioners so poorly that quality individuals cannot afford to run for the positions, or if they do, to not be able to invest the time needed to do the job well,” she wrote.

The Ottawa County Officer’s Compensation Committee operates independently from the county board, but its members are appointed by county commissioners. In December, commissioners appointed four new commissioners to four-year terms. There were only four eligible applicants in the selection pool.

Three of those new members — Lynn Janson, Mark Brouwer and Angela Loreth — voted yes in April on the pay hike proposal. Three other members were absent and Larry Jackson, appointed by a previous county board, voted against the idea.

Jackson is chair of the Ottawa County Democratic Party.

Jackson, in an MLive/The Grand Rapids Press interview, said he wanted to raise commissioner pay by 6 percent to be in line with pay increases for the majority of Ottawa County government employees. I have supported a $300 per month health care stipend.

Other committee members wanted the 60 percent increase, reasoning that commissioners’ workload in 2023 exceeded any part-time job.

“It makes no sense at all,” Jackson said. “I don’t think the job is a full-time job at all.”

Janson, in a phone interview, said he believes commissioners are working more hours than ever before and studying issues a lot.

“I think there are some counties where the boards are simply rubbing stamping and maybe not getting their hands it as much as we are,” he said.

But Janson said he also hoped a higher salary would help attract qualified commissioner candidates in the future. He believes the pay system, as it is now, requires commissioners to be somewhat wealthy to serve and give so much time.

Janson and some others on the compensation committee have been criticized for links or statements in support of Ottawa Impact — the controlling faction on the county board noted for controversial decisions.

In December, Janson expressed support for the board’s actions while applying for an open commission seat that eventually went to Kendra Wenzel.

But it’s not clear how many Ottawa Impact members will remain on the county board following this year’s election. Many of the races for board seats have multiple candidates.

Related: A far-right faction took over Ottawa County. Its job approval is poor, MLive polling reveals

Data from other counties in West Michigan show that Kent County commissioners make $25,454 now, but will make $29,593 next year. The chair now makes $45,318, with a raise to $50,251 by 2025. The vice chair makes $33,274, but will make $37,725 next year.

Kent County commissioners, like Ottawa, receive not benefits except life insurance.

Allegan County commissioners are paid $24,780, with the chair and vice chair receiving less than $2,000 more, but the county also covers 100 percent of their heal insurance valued at nearly $22,000 for the family level.

In Kalamazoo County, commissioners make $18,431 and the chair makes $21,198. They receive no health or life insurance.

In Muskegon County, commissioners make $18,861 and the chair makes $21,221, but they receive health insurance valued at about $26,000 for a family.

Rhodea, in its statement, noted that Washtenaw County in 2023 voted to increase pay for county commissioners 52 percent, from $23,858 to $36,315, starting in 2025. They also receive health insurance benefits.

“I personally do not wish for Ottawa County to lose quality commissioners due to lack of pay, nor do I want excellent leaders in our community to be unable to run due to a need to provide for their families,” she wrote.

But Commissioner Doug Zylstra, in a blog post, said he thinks raising commissioners’ salaries would be a “major disservice” to taxpayers.

He estimated the change would add nearly $300,000 to the county budget.

He also said, in his view, the county commissioner post was never designed to be a full-time job

“Prior to 2023, this role could be accomplished with 10-15 hours a week. Starting in 2023, these duties increased, mainly because of differing attitudes and expectations of the new commissioners who came on to the Board,” Zylstra wrote.

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