Jackson County commissioners defended themselves against pointed criticism Wednesday over a 26 percent salary hike approved June 4.

Jackson County commissioners defended themselves against pointed criticism Wednesday over a 26 percent salary hike approved June 4.

"It's a politically boneheaded decision," said KMED radio talk show host Bill Meyer. "I think you shot yourself in the foot."

Meyer, who was joined by several other critics at the meeting, said commissioners should have phased in the increase over several years, particularly during these economically challenging times.

The commissioners previously had approved hikes for nine elected officials after a report prepared by a salary committee found a large disparity between how much they earn compared with department heads and other managers. The increases were also approved earlier by the county budget committee.

All commissioners' salaries will increase from $68,432 a year to $86,341. The assessor's salary will increase from $81,224 to $86,341, the clerk's from $74,110 to $77,238, the county's portion of the district attorney's salary from $18,699 to $19,488, the justice of the peace from $39,666 to $55,661, the sheriff from $88,421 to $104,936 and the surveyor from $65,603 to $68,372. The district attorney also receives a salary from the state of $100,080, bringing his total annual wages to $119,568.

Altogether, the salary increases for elected officials add an extra $98,040 to the county's $290 million budget.

Gold Hill resident Morris "Bub" Saltekoff said, "It's a little inappropriate to take a 26 percent raise."

Commissioner C.W. Smith said he stands by the decision and said he would vote on the salary increase again if it came before him. He said commissioners have too long avoided raising salaries because of the political fallout.

"I've got the biggest target right here," said Smith, pointing to his chest. "I'm running for office."

Medford resident Charles Pickett said elected officials knew what their salaries were when they ran for office. With people going bankrupt and homes going into foreclosure, he said now's not the time to get a big raise.

Meyer said the commissioners' decision challenged the faith of the public in their ability to run the county.

Smith denounced Meyer for referring to commissioners as "morons" on his radio show and for failing to collect all the facts before making statements on the air, particularly about him not being available to discuss the salary increase.

Smith said he had gone on vacation, which he'd planned a year ago, then got home only to discover his wife had a brain tumor. She is recovering from surgery.

Smith said elected officials' salaries have lagged behind other managers in the county for at least 20 years.

He said the salary increases are long overdue, and even when commissioners have discussed lesser increases in years past, they have been criticized.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour said, "This is an issue that comes up every year that gives us a lot of angst and a little heartburn, too."

The commissioners said the county has pulled itself out of a crisis after facing the loss of federal timber dollars and has managed to put its budget on an even keel. Libraries, which closed for six months last year, have reopened and should be able to stay open indefinitely because of continued streamlining of the budget that now can basically function without the $23 million in annual timber payments, the commissioners said.

"We have one of the most efficiently operated counties in the whole state," said Commissioner Jack Walker, who announced he won't run again for office in 2010, when his term expires.

He said it's interesting that no one ever complains about other increases in county government that often cost more than all the raises combined.

Walker did say he was disappointed that other elected officials didn't show up at the meeting to defend the salary hike.

He said the increases are just one more effort to make the county run like a business.

The wage schedule will mean a new elected official will start out at a lower salary range, then within four years reach a maximum amount. In addition, the salaries would increase annually based on the consumer price index.

Medford resident Ken Bozarth suggested the county managers themselves are making too much money.

"I think their salaries should come down," he said. "You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip."

Gilmour said salaries for department heads are market-driven. In order for the county to attract qualified recruits, it has to pay the market rate, he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.