When Jeff Sorg challenged Allen County Surveyor Al Frisinger in the May Republican primary, he insisted most developers — supposedly unhappy with the time it took the office to process permits — were among supporting him. The boast was proven accurate when Sorg dwarfed Frisinger not only in contributions but in ballots, winning nearly 35,000 votes to the incumbent's 20,255.
This week, some of those same developers and contributors asked County Council's Personnel Committee to boost Sorg's pay by 50 percent even though he won't take office until Jan. 1 and admits he didn't realize the original salary was so low when he decided to seek it and loaned $40,000 to his own campaign.
The request to increase Sorg's proposed 2017 salary from $47,555 to $71,333 won't do anything to reassure those who have questioned his independence, and his salary assumption undermines confidence in his attention to detail. "The challenge is, (Sorg) should have known what the pay was. What would the taxpayers say?" asked Councilman Tom Harris, who said any raise for 2017 granted at council's Dec. 15 meeting — if any — is likely to be far smaller than Sorg, his attorney Tom Niezer and others want.
Given the circumstances and the need to compare Allen County's salary with what other counties pay their surveyors, such caution is both just and wise. But even Harris acknowledges potential gaps in its salaries for elected officials, and history bears him out.
As I first reported in May, salary disputes in the surveyor's office are hardly new and, in fact, directly contributed to the current mess. Sorg served as surveyor from 1993 to 1997 after being appointed by a GOP caucus following the death of incumbent Louis Machlan. Sorg continued to earn Machlan's salary, even though he was a not a licensed surveyor and under state law should have been paid 50 percent less. When the licensed Frisinger took office in 1997, therefore, he cited the same law in claiming the surveyor's salary should be boosted from $56,442 to $71,850.
Council refused, however, deciding Frisinger wasn't being underpaid — Sorg had been overpaid. And there things stayed, with Frisinger's salary gradually increasing to $69,255 this year. Next year's compensation is set at $71,333 for a licensed surveyor, and Sorg told the committee Thursday he assumed that would be his salary too, since he never took a pay cut after succeeding Machlan.
Only later did he discover his pay as an unregistered surveyor would be $47,555 — more than $15,000 less than he currently makes at the county Highway Department. That's simply not fair, Niezer and others told the committee, because Sorg will be doing the same job as Frisinger, but for a lot less money.
Niezer inisits Sorg's request would provide proper compensation for an official whose responsibilities include maintaining adequate drainage in a county containing 657 square miles and 2,500 miles of regulated ditches. Proper drainage, he said, is essential to developers, farmers and the public alike. He's right about that, even though some documents in the office must be signed by a licensed surveyor, meaning licensed staff members or paid contrators will have to do what Sorg can't.
Developer Jeff Thomas, also a client of Niezer's, told the committee the surveyor's office is essential to economic development and "should be run well and compensated well."
"You get what you pay for," added Grabill Town Council member Wilmer Delagrange.
To be clear: Niezer says Sorg sought his services and is paying for them. I know of no reason to question that despite appearances Sorg would have been wise to avoid.
But even Harris admits Sorg's central point may be valid. After all, you don't have to be a licensed accountant to earn $87,017 as county auditor in 2017. You don't have to be a trained assessor to earn $84,517 as county assessor. You don't have to have record-keeping skills to earn $71,333 as recorder. Only the coroner's's office is similar to the surveyor, with a licensed physician earning $51,186 and a coroner without such training just $34,125. Harris suspects council may be willing to move Sorg closer to that $51,000 level, but fears a larger raise now would compel the outgoing Frisinger to seek back pay under the state law used to reduce Sorg's salary in the first place.
That would be a fair short-term compromise. So would be doing nothing at all until 2018, which would force Sorg to work for a year under the conditions he should have anticipated but didn't. That would give the county human resources department and its consultants more time to complete a comprehensive review of local and statewide salaries that should result in more-equitable pay for elected officials across the board.
In the meantime, Sorg promises, he will do the job no matter what happens to his pay. As he should.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 461-8355.