CLOSER LOOK: Magistrate salaries differ across Kentucky with no defined terms of setting pay rates

Published 8:22 am Saturday, May 19, 2018

When running for public office, there are any number of questions about the position. What are the qualifications? What are the duties of the office? One of the biggest questions is about the financial compensation.

In Kentucky, salaries for “constitutional” offices including judge-executive, sheriff and county clerk, are set according to state statute. Local county governments have no choice but to pay those offices what the state requires.

Salaries for magistrates or county commissioners are a different story. There are no requirements, other than an annual maximum set by the state and enough leeway to pay what is “reasonable.”

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Earlier this spring, the Clark County Fiscal Court voted 5-2 to increase magistrates’ salaries from $400 a month and $150 for expenses to $750 a month and $300 for expenses. These changes take effect in January 2019 when the new fiscal court takes office.

There has been much public debate and discussion questioning the move, but what are the guidelines for setting salaries for magistrates and commissioners?

What is a magistrate?

According to state statute, each Kentucky county is required to have an elected judge-executive and either three commissioners or three to eight magistrates. Magistrates are elected by districts within the county, while commissioners are elected at large. County voters decide which form of government they want, and counties can go back and forth.

Clark County had a fiscal court with seven magistrates until 2011, when a county commission with three commissioners was elected. In 2015, Clark County returned to magistrates, this time with six on the fiscal court.

According to the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission, 14 of Kentucky’s 120 counties have county commissioners.

Prior to 1978, magistrates had judicial duties, as did the judge-executive. Those were removed, so one of the major duties is serving on the fiscal court. Magistrates can also perform marriages, if authorized by the county judge-executive.

Qualifications are minimal: the candidate must be a resident of Kentucky for two years prior to the election and of the county or district for at least one year. If elected, they must continue to reside in their district.

Their official power only exists when the fiscal court is in session and the judge-executive has equal power as a member of the court as well as administrative duties outside the court meeting.

The fiscal court can appropriate money, buy and sell property and supervise the affairs of the county, among other duties including maintaining county buildings, roads and property.

The reality, Clark County Magistrate Robert Blanton said, is far different from than just participating in two meetings a month. Blanton, a first-term magistrate, raised the issue of magistrate pay earlier this spring to meet at state-mandated deadline.

“Aside from two meetings a month, if you get your packet (for the upcoming court meeting) and read it, that’s time consuming with research,” he said. “You’re talking probably four or five hours. I’m probably spending 12 hours a week before I start counting.”

More than that, he said he regularly gets stopped about county business while he is out in the community. Sometimes it relates to his district, but often it doesn’t.

“You can’t just represent your district,” he said. “You’re representing the county. It’s small things that take up your time and they’re everywhere. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job.

“If you do your job right, it’s not just two meetings a month.”

Compensation requirements

Guidelines for magistrates’ salaries date back to 1949. According to the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission, maximum salaries are based on the 1949 base salary of $7,200, adjusted with the consumer price index over time. In 2017, the Kentucky Department of Local Government set the maximum at $72,930.

Magistrates and commissioners can also receive a maximum of $300 a month for expenses or committee work.

Opinions from the Kentucky Attorney General said the maximum is only justified if the magistrates do full-time work. Those working less than full-time are only entitled to payment commensurate with the hours they work, according to the LRC.

J.C. Young, the executive director of the Kentucky Magistrates and Commissioners Association, said he didn’t know of any county paying the maximum salary for magistrates or commissioners.

Commissioners and magistrates can also receive training incentives, based on the number of hours completed and years of service. For 2017, those rates started at $1,013 for a first-year magistrate to $4,052 for one with four or more years of service.

No standard rate

Young said his organization tried to track salaries for magistrates and commissioners but found it difficult at best. For some, it’s a sensitive issue, he said. It’s also not a simple answer.

“Everybody’s kind of different,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter to our association. The county pays what the county can pay.”

Some counties, he said, pay a base salary. Some pay expenses, some don’t. Some pay training incentives, some don’t.

“In small counties, they can’t pay that much,” Young said.

The maximum salaries, he said, are out of reach for about everyone.

“Obviously no one is paying that,” he said.

Once every four years

Kentucky law requires counties set magistrates’ salaries by the first Monday in May prior to a general election. It also stipulates the salary not take effect until the newly-elected magistrates take office in the new term.

“They can only do it every four years,” Young said. “I think it’s as fair as anything else.”

State law does allow for adjustments within a term based on adjustments to the consumer price index.

Making the change

Earlier this year, Blanton raised the issue to increase salaries, beginning in 2019, in order to meet the state deadline.

Currently, magistrates are paid $400 a month and $150 for expenses.

When the new term starts in January, each of the six magistrates will be paid $750 a month and $300 for expenses, an increase of more than 80 percent.

Blanton said magistrates were paid $400 monthly in 1986 which would equate to $902.19 in current money.

In his research, Blanton said salaries went to $589 with $100 for expenses in 1999, $647 and $300 expenses in 2003, and $757 with $300 in expenses in 2010, the last year for the magistrates.

In 2011, the three commissioners were each paid $844 per month and $300 in expenses.

When the court returned to magistrates beginning in 2015, salaries went back to $400 a month and $150 in expenses.

“For two magistrates and a judge to set salaries at a 1986 level, to me, was not reasonable,” Blanton said. “I’m not trying to be unreasonable.”

Blanton said no one offered an alternative plan and his recommendation was approved 5-2, with Judge-Executive Henry Branham and Magistrate Sheila McCord voting no.

Other counties

Prior to raising the matter, Blanton said he asked Young to survey five counties about their salaries and compensation for magistrates, without giving the counties’ names or how many magistrates there were.

All five counties said they offer or provide health insurance for magistrates as well as training incentive funds. Four of the five offer $300 a month for committee work; the fifth does not but covers costs for conferences.

The base salaries, though varied widely. One county of 35,000 population pays its magistrates $800 a month, or $9,600 a year. Three of the others, with population between 25,000 and 49,000, paid between $18,395 and $20,405 annually. The fifth, a county of 25,000, said it paid $11,409 annually per magistrate.

Clark County, by comparison, has a population of 35,700 and would pay $9,000 a year plus expenses of $3,600 and training incentives. The county does not offer health insurance to magistrates, Judge-Executive Henry Branham said.

“Comparable (salaries) would be a whole lot more,” Blanton said. “It would have put it at more than $750.”

Published reports show the Pike County Fiscal Court recently voted to pay its commissioners $45,000 a year beginning in 2019. The Knox County Fiscal Court voted this year to leave salaries alone at $25,863 annually. Likewise, the Hardin County Fiscal Court left its salaries intact at $26,581.

Criticism of the move

In several public arenas, including fiscal court meetings and the recent candidates’ forum, there have been complaints about the amount of the increase in light of the Clark County’s difficulty in hiring and retaining employees.

Another complaint raised in fiscal court meetings was that the magistrates voted for the raise for themselves. As all six current magistrates are running for re-election, that could happen but there are challengers for each seat this election cycle.

Blanton, though, said he has heard nothing outside those meetings.

“I’ve not heard anyone complain about it,” he said. “I’ve not had one person stop me and say anything about it.”

Now, the matter is closed for another four years when the next court can take up the issue again.

“What’s reasonable?” Blanton said. “That’s the question.”

About Fred Petke

Fred Petke is a reporter for The Winchester Sun, the Jessamine Journal and the State Journal. His beats include cops, courts, fire, public records, city and county government and other news. To contact Fred, email or call 859-759-0051.

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