Elected officials defended a Jackson County Budget Committee recommendation Wednesday to continue giving them raises like other employees, citing the county's greatly improved budget picture.

Elected officials defended a Jackson County Budget Committee recommendation Wednesday to continue giving them raises like other employees, citing the county's greatly improved budget picture.

"I don't think county officials should be penalized in relation to other county employees," said District Attorney Mark Huddleston.

Huddleston, joined by other elected officials, called the Budget Committee recommendation politically risky, but said the county has made difficult decisions that have placed it on a better financial footing than other Southern Oregon counties.

Under the proposed budget, salaries would go up 4.46 percent for elected officials and managers in the coming fiscal year to reflect cost-of-living increases. Other employees of the county also will receive cost-of-living increases.

In addition, newly elected officials will get a "step" increase for each year they are in office up to four years.

When the budget committee approved the salary schedule last year, news of a 26 percent wage hike for county commissioners ignited public outcry.

Commissioners Dave Gilmour and C.W. Smith, who was then running for reelection, decided to turn down the increase. Commissioner Jack Walker took the wage hike.

Smith since has decided to accept the $86,341 a year compared to his former wage of $68,432. Smith, who received a lot of political fallout during his campaign, said he wouldn't comment on his decision.

Gilmour is the only elected official who has refused to take a salary increase, earning $68,432 annually.

"It's consistent with what I've done all along," said Gilmour. "With hard times, it's the right thing to do."

Gilmour, who stressed he is not making a political statement, said he has a unique position compared to other commissioners. He makes a living as a doctor as well as county commissioner.

Walker said that in the 15 years he's been in office he never thought he'd see a county budget that is based on sound financial decisions rather than being swayed by political impulses.

"I never thought we would end up being the most efficient county in the state of Oregon," he said.

The county has made cutbacks that will result in $62 million in savings over the next five years and has built reserves to $70 million, expecting them to reach $100 million in the next two years.

Walker said the county needs to continue to treat the budget like a business, including paying elected officials salaries that are competitive.

"We catch flak no matter what way we go," he said.

Last year, the county created a new salary schedule for elected officials to bring their pay in line with other counties throughout the state.

The Budget Committee, which is going through the entire $325 million county budget for next fiscal year, reviewed an analysis of elected officials' salaries throughout the state that found disparities in most, but not all, wages. The three commissioners, who are on the Budget Committee, weren't part of this process.

Only the three appointed members, Dick Rudisile, Shayne Maxwell and Craig Morris, made a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners about elected officials' salaries.

The analysis found that five of seven Jackson County elected officials receive less than their counterparts throughout the state. The Jackson County sheriff, for example, receives $104,936 annually, or 14 percent less than the average salary of sheriffs in Clackamas, Deschutes, Lane, Linn and Marion counties.

The assessor, with an annual salary of $86,341, receives almost 11 percent less in the comparison. The commissioners receive 10.39 percent more than comparable counties, while the justice of the peace gets 1.15 percent more.

The cost-of-living increase for all elected officials will cost the county $29,286 next fiscal year, according to the County Administrator's Office. The step increase for all elected officials will cost $16,713.50.

Rudisile, Budget Committee chairman, said elected officials have worked hard over the last three years to make various departments run more efficiently and to make tough decisions.

"For the responsibility these people have made, they would make a hell of a lot more in the private sector," said Rudisile. "I do not feel denying them some kind of salary increase is merited."

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