Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 2, 2020
[In 2015 I wrote an article for the Fernandina Observer entitled: Have you ever wondered how the salaries of local elected officials are set in Florida? One of our readers suggested it might be time for an update, and the FO agreed. Below is the update entitled Local Elected Officials Salaries 2.0.]
Nassau County and Fernandina Beach City voters head to the polls for the August 2020 Universal Primary Election starting Monday, August 3, when Early Voting begins. Running for office and discharging the duties of that office if successful, is challenging and not for the faint hearted. However, a look at the compensation for those headaches may reveal why many candidates think it is worth the headaches.
The Office of Economic and Demographic Research (EDR) is a research arm of the Legislature, principally concerned with forecasting economic and social trends that affect policy making, revenues and appropriations. In September 2019, they issued an annual report entitled Salaries of Elected County Constitutional Officers and School District Officials for Fiscal Year 2014-15. Material in this article is drawn from that report.
The salaries for the constitutional officers are set by the state using a formula based on the County’s population. Determining the compensation of Florida’s county constitutional officers harkens back to the Constitution of 1885. But it wasn’t until 1973 that the Legislature authorized a salary compensation formula, which was established to provide uniform compensation among counties with similar sized populations.
In 2009, the Legislature authorized district school board members and elected school superintendents to reduce their salaries on a voluntary basis. Then in 2011, the Legislature authorized county commissioners, clerks of circuit court, county comptrollers, sheriffs, supervisors of elections, property appraisers, and tax collectors to voluntarily reduce their salaries.
To my knowledge, no local official is currently opting voluntarily to accept a lower salary. If my information is incorrect, please notify me and I will print the correction.
[Note that the increase in salary for the Supervisor of Elections might be slightly misleading. Within the past 5 years the state changes the base salary for that position to bring it in line with other constitutional officers, accounting for the significant increase over the 5-year period.]
These rulings cited above did not apply to charter counties or those counties, like Duval, that have a chartered consolidated form of government. Nassau County is not a charter county, of which there are twenty in the state of Florida. Consequently, salaries of county and constitutional officers are set by the state formulas.
The situation with locally elected governing boards is a mixed bag. While salaries for the Board of Nassau County Commissioners and the Nassau County School Board Members are also set according to the state formula, that is not the case for the City of Fernandina Beach Commissioners or the Ocean Highway and Port Authority Commissioners.
[To amplify on the table above a bit, the number of Regular Meetings per month is fixed by law or charter. But many boards — notably the County and the City of Fernandina Beach — meet much more often in Special Meetings and Workshops.]
If Nassau County had a Charter form of government, the salaries of Constitutional Officers, County Commission and School Board could also be set by local government. According to the Florida Association of Counties,
“In 1968, the electors of Florida granted local voters the power to adopt charters to govern their counties. Charters are formal written documents that confer powers, duties, or privileges on the county. They resemble state or federal constitutions and they must be approved, along with any amendments, by the voters of a county.
“According to several Florida constitutional scholars, the establishment of charter government was designed to remove the resolution of local problems from the state legislature’s busy agenda and to grant the county electorate greater control over their regional affairs.
“To date, there are 20 charter counties in Florida. Collectively these counties are home to more than 75 percent of Florida’s residents.”
For more information on Charter Counties in Florida, visit the Florida Association of Counties website or search the Fernandina Observer website for a series of articles on Charter Government that I wrote in 2015 (republished in 2019).
In Texas, Pennsylvania and Colorado, state laws ban school districts from paying board members, and states including Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey, Louisiana and Missouri pay only a $100 to $200 monthly stipend or per diem plus expenses. However, school board members in Florida, California, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama receive salaries. Elizabeth Mann Levesque wrote a report in 2017 entitled “What should we pay School Boards? Reflecting on LA’s 174 percent raise” and quoted from a 2010 survey:
“Nationally, 62.3 percent of board members report that they receive no salary, while 14.3 percent receive an annual salary of $5,000 or more and 2 percent earn a salary of more than $15,000 per year.” The same report found that the majority of board members in large districts receive a salary, but only 7.8 percent of respondents from large districts earned over $15,000 a year for their service.”
Currently, Nassau County School Board members are compensated at a level that is 68 percent of the newly state-approved $47,000 salary for starting teachers.
The City of Fernandina Beach, which has a home rule charter, does not compensate city commissioners by formula. Section 12 of the City Charter allows the Commission to set its own salaries by ordinance. The amount has remained at $1,000 per month since 1997, with the exception of FY2011-12 (Ordinance 2011-21) when commissioners voluntarily took a 20 percent cut in salary for one year only during the economic recession. The next commission did not take action to continue the salary cut, so it reverted to $12,000 per year.
Ocean Highway & Port Authority
The Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) is a Special District and determines its own compensation as well. The OHPA charter allows commissioners a salary of $2,000 per month. During recent years commissioners voluntarily worked for half salary ($1,000 per month) while the Port of Fernandina was experiencing financial difficulties. However, with the transfer of the operating contract from Kinder Morgan to World Wide Terminals Fernandina last year, commissioners voted to restore their salaries to $2,000 per month.
While it is too late to consider running for local elected office this cycle if you haven’t already qualified, the next election cycle in 2022 will hold contests for two positions each on the Nassau County Commission Districts 2, 4), Fernandina Beach City Commission; three each on the School Board (Districts 1, 3, 5), and Ocean Highway & Port Authority (Districts 3, 4, 5). You will get another chance to run for constitutional officer positions in 2024.