In our Thursday editorial, we urged county officials to consider across-the-board pay cuts as an alternative to furloughing employees and closing government offices over the holidays.
To be clear, we believe those cuts need to start at the top tier of Sonoma County government.
Over the past dozen years, the salaries of the county's elected leaders have risen substantially, outpacing inflation and unchecked by the harsh economic forces squeezing the middle class and eroding safety net services for the poor. They can afford to lead by example.
In 1998, the base pay for county supervisors was $58,607 — slightly more than Sonoma County's median household income. Their base salary is now $133,640 — more than double the county's median household income.
Moreover, when other cash benefits are counted, none of the five board members was paid less than $149,380 in 2010.
Salaries and perquisites are even more generous for the four countywide officeholders — the sheriff, the district attorney, the clerk-assessor and the auditor-controller.
Much as the retirement of Auditor-Controller Rod Dole, announced barely a month into his term of office, focused public attention on excessive pensions, the appointment of his successor this past week prompted readers' questions and our review of these salaries.
The new auditor-controller, David E. Sundstrom will be paid $208,000 a year. That salary was set by the Board of Supervisors prior to the 2010 election and based on a survey of nine other counties. Sundstrom was paid $26,000 less for the same job in Orange County, a significantly larger and wealthier county.
In 1998, Dole was paid $97,295. Only the sheriff and district attorney received six-figure salaries.
Last year, three of the four countywide officeholders collected more than $200,000, topped by retiring Sheriff Bill Cogbill, who was paid $231,366 in salaries and premiums. Dole received $221,000.
All of these positions require long hours and entail major responsibilities. The county supervisors oversee a $1 billion budget and 4,700 employees. The countywide officials supervise criminal justice, property tax assessments and collections, public records and elections.
They deserve commensurate salaries, and this newspaper editorialized in support of pay raises for the supervisors in 1998 and 2000, at a time when they were paid far less than people in private-sector jobs with similar responsibilities.
But this is an era of declining resources, and the county needs to adjust. Many private-sector employers have cut salaries or granted raises that haven't keep pace with inflation. Sonoma County is shedding jobs and forecasting yet another deficit next year. For the third straight year, county offices will be closed for 10 days with most employees placed on unpaid leave.
These are temporary fixes. It's time for the Board of Supervisors to consider permanent solutions, including whether reducing pay would save jobs and preserve services. As a matter of fairness, and an act of leadership, cutbacks should start at the top.