County mulls raises to employees amid inflation

SUBLETTE COUNTY – Wyoming’s always been an outlier.

It’s typically a worst-or-first state in per-capita studies because of its population. Its various terrain and economic drivers – energy, agriculture and tourism – jammed into its borders create a state that’s truly unique.

Now, Wyoming finds itself among most of the country with rising costs of living.

Legislation recently passed in the Wyoming State Legislature increased the cap on salaries for elected officials in Wyoming to $145,000 from $110,000. The Sublette County Board of Commissioners invited elected officials to the commissioners’ chambers during the April 5 meeting to gauge interest in rising salaries.

County clerk Carrie Long informed commissioners she was planning a 7-percent cost-of-living adjustment to combat the statistics compiled by the Wyoming State Economic Analysis Division.

According to the Wyoming Cost of Living Index for the second quarter of 2021, released last October by the state, the state averaged 7.7 percent inflation. The index compiled inflation, which measures annual change, and the comparative cost of living index, which compares each county’s cost of living in one period to the statewide average.

In addition to breaking up the index by consumer category, it was divided into five regions of Wyoming. Sublette County – in the southwest region with Lincoln, Unita and Sweetwater counties – saw the highest increase in regional inflation at 8.9 percent.

The statistics were compiled in 2021, comparing the costs of goods and services from the second fiscal quarter of 2020 to the second fiscal quarter of 2021.

The national inflation rate during that time was 5.4 percent.

Survey methodology in the survey included communities across the state based upon certain criteria. The largest city or town in each county was priced, as was any city or town with a population over 5,000. A town under 5,000 that consisted of at least 80 percent of the county’s population was also included.

In cases where one community was priced, like Sublette County, those prices are used to represent the entire county.

In comparative cost of living, Sublette County ranked as the fourth highest in Wyoming. That was behind Teton, Lincoln and Laramie counties. Sublette County’s index surpassed the state’s average in food, housing, apparel, transportation and recreation and personal care.

The state’s study showed a 7.7-percent increase from the fiscal fourth quarter of 2020, including a 23.3-percent inflation increase in transportation. This study was released in October 2021, well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the sanctions that followed and the worldwide rise in gas prices that came as a result.

For a tangible example, housing costs continue to rise in Sublette County. That goes for the homeowners’ market as well as the rental market. Sublette County saw a 19.3-percent increase in apartment rent costs from the second fiscal quarter of 2020 to the same time in 2021. That was the highest rise in the state. The average rental in Sublette County increased from $725 to $865 per month in that year. Ownership costs rose 9.7 percent, to $1,202 on average per month from $1,095 during that year timeframe.

The state’s statistic criteria for housing units are also worth noting. The state factored an apartment as the average cost of a two-bedroom, unfurnished unit excluding gas and electric. The state factored two- or three-bedroom, single-family homes into its criteria, excluding gas and electric.

Of course, costs of living haven’t declined in the months since that study was conducted. And last week, one by one, elected officials explained how their workloads and expenses increased but their salaries had not.

At one point during the discussion it was clarified that elected officials deferred raises four years ago so their staffs could see an increase in salary.

“The employees got a 2-percent raise and that was the last time they got a cost-of-living increase since 2002,” Long said.

The economic anxiety of running for election, when a candidate is essentially interviewing for their position with county citizens, was also raised. Other county employees can make slightly less money than department heads, not worry about elections or the logistical issues of leading a department, while still collecting a paycheck.

Of course, as elected officials, county commissioners would also be eligible to raise their salaries. Little discussion was had concerning that, as commissioner Doug Vickrey announced he’d likely see re-election and wouldn’t like to see county residents forced to pay more in taxes while their salaries haven’t increased.

The median household income in Sublette County is $78,655, according to the most recent Census data released earlier this year.

“I’m going to be mad as a hornet when I see my taxes go up and the people in county positions are going to get substantial increases,” Vickrey said. “I’m not saying it’s not deserved, what I’m saying is, from my perspective again, this might be a very poor time to talk about raising 7 percent or whatever it ends up being because – folks, I guarantee you, the people who are having to buy $4 or $5 gas to drive to Jackson to work are going to feel that pinch.”

County commissioners will again look at potential raises for elected officials at their next meeting, Tuesday, April 19. A resolution would be needed during that meeting to enact a raise, unless, of course, if a special meeting was called.