2024-05-05T23:44:39-04:00May 5th, 2024|

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Ottawa County is Michigan’s fastest growing and 4th wealthiest county, with a $260M+ yearly budget.

The Board is responsible for budgetary oversight, setting priorities, creating policy, and protecting individual rights.

Should Ottawa County pay its Board a living wage?

Political Games

Larry Jackson, current chair of the Ottawa County Democratic Party, was appointed to the Ottawa County Officers Compensation Commission (OCC) by the outgoing Board of Commissioners in December of 2022, despite Jackson’s known political activism.

Jackson lost a race for the House of Representatives that same year to Representative Nancy DeBoer. He was also a candidate recruiter for the Unifying Coalition of Ottawa County— a coalition built to counter the election of conservative Republicans. Additionally, he initiated the recall petition against Republican Commissioner Lucy Ebel.

Following his leadership on the recall effort, Jackson was elected as the Chair of the Ottawa County Democratic Party in November of 2023.

OCC Responsibilities

In December of 2023, the current Board of Commissioners appointed four members to the open seats on the Officers Compensation Commission, with terms expiring at the end of 2027. There were only four eligible candidates who applied, and those four individuals were appointed. The appointments were approved unanimously by the Talent & Recruitment Committee and the Board of Commissioners.

As reported in the media this week, the 2024 Officers Compensation Commission met in recent months and made a recommendation on salary increases for county elected positions such as Prosecutor, Sheriff, Treasurer, and Clerk, as well as the Board of Commissioners.

The Officers Compensation Commission requested information from office holders and gathered pertinent information from comparable counties to make their decision on compensation for these positions for 2025 and 2026. The decisions made by the Officers Compensation Commission were independent of the Board of Commissioners.

Per state law, the new pay rates will go into effect in January of 2025, unless the Board of Commissioners rejects the recommendations by a 2/3 vote in 2024.

The recommendation from the Officers Compensation Commission has not been approved by the Board of Commissioners at this time, nor has the item been placed on the agenda for the next Board meeting, as claimed by Democratic Party Chair Larry Jackson.

The Protest of Larry Jackson— Concern, or Election Interference?

Jackson, disagreeing with the recommendations of the Officers Compensation Commission, has joined efforts with the activist media to blame the Board of Commissioners, just as in-person voting for the Special Election for Commissioner Ebel was underway.

Are the media and the Democratic Party Chair engaging in election interference?

If Jackson were truly concerned with saving the county money, he could have refrained from initiating a Special Election against Commissioner Ebel at the taxpayers’ expense.

Perhaps Jackson is a political opportunist, or he lacks confidence that Democrat commissioner candidates will win in Republican Ottawa County.

Is Jackson unwilling to pay Republican and Democrat officials a living wage? Where is his protest against the $95,985 salary of Michigan’s Democratic Speaker of the House, or the $71,685 salary he would have received if he had won a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives?

According to the Holland Sentinel, Larry Jackson served on the board of the “Chicago Eco House, a nonprofit focused on alleviating urban poverty.” Yet Jackson is unable to assess a living wage.

A Living Wage

The current salary of an Ottawa County Commissioner is $20,844, only $400 above the federal poverty rate for a family of 2. The position does not include health insurance and is comparable with entry level wage rates. The hours worked by county commissioners vary by assignment and dedication, with responsibilities occurring throughout the day and evening hours, making additional employment a challenge.

A number of commissioners work 24-40+ hours a week serving the community. Commissioners in other counties have voiced challenges as compensation has failed to keep up with the growing demands of the position.

Jackson now feigns outrage that the salary for a county commissioner may increase to $33,300 in 2025, a mere 7% above the 2024 federal poverty rate of $31,200 for a family of four.

2024 Poverty Guidelines: 48 Contiguous States

Household/Family Size100%133%

The Officers Compensation Commission also approved a stipend of $1,000 per month for county commissioners which could be used to offset the cost of health care benefits. Although Ottawa County offers a generous benefit package to its employees, it does not include benefits to county commissioners, which are expensive to pay for out of pocket.

Ottawa’s Strong Financial Status

Ottawa County is ranked 4th among Michigan’s wealthiest counties. With a population of 300K, Ottawa County is the state’s fastest growing county, has the 3rd lowest unemployment rate, and a median household income of $83,932.

Michigan’s Wealthiest Counties

NumberCountyMedian Household IncomePopulation

The Board of Commissioners provides oversight to a $260M+ budget, with monthly expenditures of over $20M. The county’s net position is greater than $200M, with a $74M solid bottom line. In early 2024, the county received a clean audit with no budget overages, and an AAA bond rating. We are in excellent financial standing.

So why then is the compensation of county commissioners so low?

It appears compensation has been historically low for county commissioners across the state for some time. Elected officials are often hesitant to vote for their own pay increases due to upcoming elections, resulting in disproportionately low compensation for county commissioners over time.

As counties and workloads grew, compensation has not always followed. Some counties have chosen to increase the number of commissioners who serve the community and divide the workload. Kent County, for instance, now has 21 commissioners.

Workloads and Active Oversight

Lower pay may have been appropriate in years past in Ottawa County due to a smaller population and smaller workloads. Perhaps prior Boards were not thoroughly reading packets, researching grants, asking questions, and engaging in true oversight of the county. This may have been desirable to past administrative leadership— commissioners who asked few questions and rubber stamped whatever the bureaucracy desired.

I certainly understand Democratic Party Chair Larry Jackson wanting to return to the old mold of do-nothing Republican leadership, which all but guaranteed Democrat policies and agenda could be easily implemented in the Republican stronghold of Ottawa County.

Today is a different story. For those who love freedom and American values, in a county largely funded by state and federal grants from bureaucracies led by Governor Whitmer and President Biden, we need commissioners who are actively engaged in county oversight.

Low compensation indicates little time is required to fulfill the commissioner position. Unfortunately, this historically has attracted some individuals who do not have the time or desire to provide active oversight.

Hours Per Week

When I ran for office in 2022, commissioners from nearby counties communicated having a workload of 7 to 10 hours a week, while others reported working 15 hours a week. Numerous Ottawa County commissioners have found the time investment is much higher here, but the time invested in research and conservative reforms yields worthwhile results.

Of course, there are some commissioners who are not as invested as others. But many on the Board are investing 20 to 40 hours a week— with an unpredictable schedule which makes the ability to acquire or maintain additional employment a challenge, especially employment which offers benefits such as health care.

The combination of irregular and demanding hours, low compensation, and the lack of benefits is difficult and creates a barrier for individuals who are breadwinners and/or raising children. With the cost of child care, a commissioner with child care expenses could potentially be paying to be a commissioner during the summer months. The voices of our younger generations are valuable in leading our county, and I desire for them to be included at the table.

Compassionate Poverty

Prior to starting our term, some of us attended a training course for commissioners with the Michigan Association of Counties (MAC). We talked to a group of Democrat female commissioners from the east side of the state during several group activities. Our conversation fell to the pay of commissioners, which is abysmally low across the state. One commissioner shared her struggles being a single mom who loved her elected position and the people she served, but stated she was not able to afford her job, given the poor pay and the time needed to truly fulfill the job’s functions.

This is not an Ottawa County issue, or a partisan issue. It is a human issue.

Paying the Bills While Serving

As a child welfare worker, I took a pay cut from being a waitress during college to work with abused children. I had occasions where I needed to advocate for appropriate pay for my fellow social workers in my field. I am sensitive to the struggles of those who are fierce advocates for the needs of individuals in their communities, while at the same time dealing with the very real stressors of paying their bills at home.

Often those with the biggest hearts are willing to work for little to help others. But that does not mean communities should abuse the intrinsic motivation of compassionate employees and leaders and pay them poverty level wages. Particularly when a community has the means to pay at a level commensurate with the skills and time needed to do a job well.

I strongly believe employees should be appropriately paid for their time, effort, and skill, a belief I have applied to decision making on behalf of supporting our employees, including our law enforcement personnel in Ottawa County.

Our county has a $260M+ annual budget. We strive to pay our 1200+ employees competitively and provide generous benefits. Commissioner Cosby has repeatedly inquired of department heads what is needed to attract talent, and if compensation is competitive for our employees. Competitive pay and low turnover are fiscally conservative positions.

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.

One should not have to own a mansion, be financially independent, or be retired to be able to afford serving their community as a county commissioner.

When there is a wrong, Ottawa County ought to lead in addressing it. We have the ability to self-examine and self-correct. County commissioners should be paid a living wage, without Democrats and political opponents demanding an ounce of flesh to facilitate the long term needed change.

Media Cherry Picking

The media loves to cherry pick numbers and spin them for a desired narrative, while neglecting to point out and appropriately compare facts and data.

The story painted this week was that the Board of Commissioners requested and approved a 60% pay increase. While many in the state have been aware there is a legitimate compensation problem which needs to be addressed, the Board of Commissioners did not make a request for any specific amount. The Officers Compensation Commission independently considered appropriate and relevant data in determining their recommendation, including data from comparable counties.

OCC Recommendations

The following chart shows the current pay and the OCC’s recommended compensation changes for the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners for 2025.

Ottawa County2024 Compensation2024 Benefits2025 OCC Recommended
2025 OCC
Recommended Benefits
Chair$27,127+ Life Ins.$43,403.20+ $1,000 monthly benefit stipend
Vice Chair$21,523+ Life Ins.$34,436.80+ $1,000 monthly benefit stipend
Commissioner$20,844+ Life Ins.$33,350.40+ $1,000 monthly benefit stipend

Data from surrounding and comparable counties is utilized in making recommendations for Ottawa County.

How does Ottawa County compare to counties like Allegan, Muskegon, and Kent?

Kent County recently went through a similar process. Kent County’s Officers Compensation Commission recommended the following wages for Kent County’s Board of 21 commissioners in 2025.

Kent County2024 Compensation2024 Benefits2025 OCC Recommended
2025 OCC
Recommended Benefits
Chair$45,318+ Life Ins.$50,251+ Life Ins.
Vice Chair$33,274+ Life Ins.$37,725+ Life Ins.
Commissioner$25,454+ Life Ins.$29,523+ Life Ins.

Additional Comparables

Additional comparable of nearby counties are as follows:

Allegan County2024 Compensation2024 Benefits2025 OCC Recommended
2025 OCC
Recommended Benefits
Chair$26,280+ up to $22,000 for Health, Dental, Vision, Lifeunknownunknown
Vice Chair$25,530+ up to $22,000 for Health, Dental, Vision, Lifeunknownunknown
Commissioner$24,780+ up to $22,000 for Health, Dental, Vision, Lifeunknownunknown
Muskegon County2024 Compensation2024 Benefits2025 OCC Recommended
2025 OCC
Recommended Benefits
Chair$21,221+ up to $27,000 for Health, Dental, Vision, Lifeunknownunknown
Vice Chair$18,861+ up to $27,000 for Health, Dental, Vision, Lifeunknownunknown
Commissioner$18,861+ up to $27,000 for Health, Dental, Vision, Lifeunknownunknown

Additional Counties

Counties across the state have worked to correct the compensation of county commissioners.

Macomb County, ranked Michigan’s 13th wealthiest county, made significant shifts to chair and commissioner compensation in 2016. Macomb’s Board Chair compensation was adjusted from $66,595 to $90,000, and commissioner compensation was adjusted from $30,746 to $35,000. Additional adjustments have occurred since, with future adjustments approved as follows.

Macomb County2024 Compensation2025 Compensation2028 CompensationBenefit Status
Chair$95,518$101,249$120,589+ Health
Vice Chair$37,146$42,375$51,897+ Health
Commissioner$37,146$39,375$48,897+ Health

In July of 2023, Washtenaw County, Michigan’s 3rd wealthiest county, voted to increase the pay of county commissioners from $23,858 to $36,315 beginning in the new term in 2025. The Board Chair receives an additional $3,000 stipend, the Vice Chair an additional $1000, and the Chairs of the Standing Committees receive an additional $3000.

Washtenaw County2024 Compensation2025 CompensationBenefits
Chair$26,858$39,315+ Health, Dental
Vice Chair$24,858$37,315+ Health, Dental
Standing Committee Chairs$26,858$39,315+ Health, Dental
Commissioner$23,858$36,315+ Health, Dental

Oakland County, ranked the 2nd wealthiest county, currently pays its 19 county commissioners $45,255, as well as health insurance benefits. In 2020, leadership stipends were approved for the Board Chair (30%), the vice chair (15%), and chairs of the majority and minority caucuses (10%), to reflect their additional work responsibilities.

Oakland County2024 CompensationBenefits
Chair$58,831+ Health
Vice Chair$52,043+ Health
Party Caucus Chairs$49,780+ Health
Commissioner$45,255+ Health

Data Summary

County commissioner pay for various counties.

County2025 (Est.)Benefits (Est.)TotalWealthiest County Ranking
1. Macomb$39,375$12,000*$51,375#13
2. Washtenaw$36,315$15,000*$51,315#3
3. Allegan$24,780$22,000$46,780#10
4. Muskegon$18,861$27,000$45,861Unknown
5. Ottawa$33,350$12,000$45,350#4
6. Kent$29,523$0$29,523#8

* Conservative estimates

Future Course of Leadership

Would it be right for Ottawa County— a county with a $260M+ yearly budget, whose Board sets the priorities for and oversees the expenditure of $20M per month, while rightly paying its 1200+ employees fairly and providing excellent benefits— to pay its Board a living wage?

Do we want commissioners who rubber stamp, or leaders of excellence?

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.

Desiring what is best for Ottawa County and its future leadership, I will continue to listen, and support a sincere consideration of the recommendations of the Officers Compensation Commission.

A Thank You

Progressive activists have brought unending law fare, a recall election, hundreds of coordinated media hits, and Board meetings lengthened by abusive comments within generous opportunities for public comment.

I am thankful to my fellow commissioners for their unending patience, courage, and endurance, providing compassionate leadership and a strong work ethic in challenging times— despite the lack of a living wage.