Flathead County

County Commission Passes Cost-of-Living Increases

Employees and elected officials will receive a 3.2% pay raise, though members of the county compensation board pushed for higher rate

By Micah Drew
Flathead County Courthouse on Main Street in Kalispell pictured May 4, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead County Commissioners at their June 11 meeting voted unanimously to increase salaries for the county’s elected officials and county employees by 3.2%. The annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) is lower than last year’s 4% county-wide raise, and lower than many members of the county’s compensation board pushed for.

The county compensation board, which recommends the base salary for elected officials, includes the commissioners, county attorney, clerk of the court, sheriff, county treasurer and two commissioner-appointed members. The three-member county commission then independently recommends a matching salary increase for the county’s remaining employees.

When the compensation board met on June 6 to discuss the annual raise, a 3% increase was proposed, due to rising budgets, a need to keep the county’s cash reserve balance intact and limitations on increasing taxes.

Sheriff Brian Heino recommended a 3.2% COLA, which he reached by considering inflation rates, the federal increase for Social Security, and the county’s financial situation.

“I’m sure all of us were sitting around the table trying to figure out the balance of how to keep our staff and also balancing the limitations we have,” Heino said, adding that while some elected officials may personally be OK with a lower increase, several groups of county employees, including sheriff’s deputies, are tied to their respective department head’s salary.

County Attorney Travis Ahner took a stronger position, advocating for a 4.1% increase to give the county a better chance at hiring and retaining employees.

“Flathead County continues to just hang on compared to the cities and compared to other government jobs. So, not looking at are we competing with the private sector, but are we competing with other government entities in terms of retaining employees,” he said. “It’s like we’re riding a bike and trying to go as slow as possible without crashing the bike but we’re still falling behind. And we’re still losing. And we’re still struggling.”

Ahner said that his office had five vacancies for most of the last year, with salary savings exceeding $500,000, which he advocated be reallocated to overall COLA.  “I’m tired of trying to hire, and not hiring, frankly. Even where we’re at, I’m not getting any applicants and to fall even just a little bit further behind, that’s not going to do my office any good and it’s not going to do the citizens of Flathead County any good.”

Last year, the county approved a 4% COLA, the largest since 2008, and boosted first-year deputy attorney salaries by 9% to help hiring and retention in that office.  

It’s like we’re riding a bike and trying to go as slow as possible without crashing the bike but we’re still falling behind. And we’re still losing. And we’re still struggling.

County Attorney Travis Ahner

Clerk of the Court Peg Allison agreed with Ahner, pointing to her own office’s vacancies. Allison said that while current salaries in her office matched those of similar state-funded positions, a recent statewide pay raise was likely going to cost her several employees over the next months.

“I can’t compete with monies,” Allison said, adding that her office is already unable to keep up with their workload.

Amy Dexter, the county’s finance director, told the board that several department operating budgets are projected to increase by up to eight or nine percent in the next fiscal year, and utilizing salary savings from currently vacant positions was not a tenable long-term plan. Dexter said she “literally was pulling every bit of money” to comfortably budget for a 25% cash reserve, which Commissioner Pam Holmquist said was the lowest she’d see in her 14 years on the board.

“This board meets every year. If we need to adjust because somehow, magically, I fill all my positions and, somehow, the county retains all of its employees and doesn’t fall behind, we can adjust and address that when we meet next year,” Ahner said.

The county commissioners moved to approve a 3% COLA increase, but the vote failed on a tie with all four department heads in opposition. A subsequent vote for Sheriff Heino’s 3.2% recommendation passed by one vote, and was recommended for approval by the county commission.

“Would we like to give more? Obviously, because we care about our employees,” Holmquist told the compensation board. “But we also have to look at, I mean we just heard from our insurance our rates are going up. Everything’s going up. Every time we turn around there’s an increase … until that turns around, we have to keep our balance up so that we don’t find some real problems down the road.”

County officials’ salaries following the COLA adjustment are:

  • Clerk of District Court: $87,154
  • County Treasurer/Assessor: $87,154
  • Justice of the Peace, Dept. 1: $100,497
  • Justice of the Peace, Dept. 2: $100,497
  • Clerk/Recorder/Surveyor: $87,154
  • County Commissioners: $87,154
  • Sheriff /Coroner: $114,747
  • Superintendent of Schools: $87,154
  • County Attorney: $147,304

This article has been corrected to clarify that in FY24, only first-year deputy attorney positions were increased by 9%.