Few Americans can imagine an instant pay raise of $30,000. So we were surprised Tuesday when four El Paso County commissioners raised the wage of District Attorney Dan May to $215,000.
It's a 17.5 percent increase amounting to $32,000 a year in additional pay, which he requested shortly after re-election. Commissioners raised May's pay by more than 27 percent in 2013.
We're told the increase puts May more on par, dollar for dollar, with contemporaries in other large Colorado judicial districts.
Local officials often push to match wages in Denver, Boulder and other Front Range cities without accounting for each economy's cost of living. El Paso County's cost of living is substantially low when compared with cities in and around metropolitan Denver.
Boulder County commissioners last week approved a 3 percent raise for District Attorney Stan Garnett and annual 3 percent raises for the next four years. His wage this year is $190,565. We ran May's new salary through the Sperling's Cost of Living calculator, which adjusts the value of salaries in context of a community's housing market, taxes, transportation costs, utility rates and other basic cost-of-living data.
It said: "A salary of $215,000 in Colorado Springs, Colorado should increase to $364,476 in Boulder, Colorado," or "A salary of $190,565 in Boulder, Colorado could decrease to $112,412 in Colorado Springs, Colorado."
This makes May's salary seem excessive and out of line. To be fair, May heads a much larger agency than Garnett's. His most recent annual caseload was 30,938, while Garnett's was 7,250. May manages 207 full-time equivalents to Garnett's 68.9.
A more equitable comparison is the 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe and Douglas counties. DA George Brauchler of Highlands Ranch earns $165,000. He manages slightly more caseloads and full-time equivalents than does May.
Sperling's reports: "A salary of $215,000 in Colorado Springs, Colorado should increase to $289,124 in Highlands Ranch, Colorado," or "A salary of $165,000 in Highlands Ranch, Colorado could decrease to $122,698 in Colorado Springs, Colorado."
The highest salary among Colorado district attorneys goes to Denver DA Mitch Morrissey, at $219,000. Adjusting for Denver's cost of living, Morrissey would need to earn $261,071 to match May's new wage.
Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, the state's highest legal authority, earns $80,000 a year. Secretary of State Wayne Williams, an attorney, earns $68,500.
"We don't need to be blowing up wages of our local government employees," said Commissioner Peggy Littleton, who cast the lone vote against May's raise after pulling it from the consent agenda. "This inflates his pension, which means more cost to taxpayers in perpetuity."
Littleton said she's concerned about low wages among other employees in the District Attorney's Office, where entry-level prosecutors make just over $62,000.
May told us he is responsible for recommending the DA's salary every four years and wants to ensure the wage will attract qualified candidates in the future.
"It was a difficult decision for all of us, but our primary function is public safety, and he obviously plays a big role in that," Commissioner Mark Waller said. "Part of it was making his compensation competitive with other jurisdictions."
We arguably pay our DA the highest public sector attorney wage in Colorado.
May is an excellent prosecutor, and we are fortunate to have him. But May cannot tote his job to some other county. Nor can we recruit a DA from some other place by offering the highest pay. The wage should be fair, but we don't need a pointless race to the top at the taxpayers' expense.
We don't blame May for this. He has a responsibility to his family to earn the highest salary possible. County commissioners should have considered the benefits public employees glean by living and working in a community that has maintained an enviably low cost of living. They should have said no and encouraged May to put the money toward the direct costs of prosecuting crimes.
the gazette editorial board