Syracuse, N.Y. – On the heels of a grueling but successful election season marked by seven-day work weeks amid a pandemic, Onondaga County’s two elections commissioners today were rewarded with a … pay cut.
In a last-minute amendment to the 2021 county budget approved today, Republican legislators voted in a bloc to cut the pay of the two commissioners, a Republican and a Democrat, by $7,000 each. That cuts their pay from just under $100,000 to $93,000.
The six Democratic legislators opposed the change.
Legislator Kevin Holmquist, R-Manlius, said he sponsored the amendment because the commissioners are overpaid compared with their counterparts on a per-capita basis. The commissioners in Monroe County, which has more than 50% more people, earn about $103,000 Holmquist said.
“It’s not an attempt to punish anybody,’’ Holmquist said. He called it an effort to “right size’’ the salaries.
“We are absolutely an outlier,’’ Holmquist said.
Democratic legislators disputed Holmquist’s rationale. In Albany County, which is two-thirds the size of Onondaga County, the pay is $96,000, said Legislator Chris Ryan, D-Geddes. In Dutchess County, which is smaller than Onondaga, the commissioners make about $100,000.
Onondaga’s election commissioners “are doing more work with less people and if anything should probably get a raise,’’ Ryan said.
Mary Kuhn, D-DeWitt, said Onondaga County has an efficient elections board that is a model for other counties.
“When people do an excellent job, it’s rather unusual to recommend a pay decrease,’’ she said.
Both elections commissioners said they were blindsided by the pay cut. It was never discussed when they made their budget presentation to the legislature.
“It was a big surprise to me,’’ said Michele Sardo, the Republican commissioner. “It is upsetting and nerve-wracking, (considering) the past couple years and what has been accomplished in our office, but I still have a job. And I’m thankful for that.”
No other department heads received salary cuts. In fact, they will get 1% raises under the budget approved today.
The Board of Elections faced unprecedented challenges this year both because changes in the election schedule added a primary and because the coronavirus pandemic spurred early voting and an exponential increase in absentee ballots.
Dustin Czarny, the Democratic commissioner, said he hasn’t had a day off since at least Labor Day. He said he can’t remember taking a full weekend off all year.
Czarny said he could understand the salary cut if all department heads were taking a one-time reduction to help the county get through a difficult year. But he said he can’t fathom why he and Sardo were targeted.
Czarny and Sardo say they generally work together well. But some Republicans have been critical of Czarny for his outspoken advocacy for voting reforms such as early voting.
“I cannot see into their hearts,’’ he said. “If this is meant to intimidate me in any way, or to intimidate Commissioner Sardo, I can tell you this — I’ll be doing my job exactly the same.”
But Holmquist emphasized at least twice that the pay cut was not intended as punishment. He argued that with only 16 employees, Czarny and Sardo earn more than other department heads who have far more employees.
He said the pay cut was “very, very fair.”
Czarny agreed that the elections board staff is small. He and Sardo pick up much of the work, he said.
With one full-time employee for every 19,000 voters, Onondaga has about half the staff of most election boards on a per-voter basis. The state average is about one worker for 10,000 voters, Czarny said.
The board of elections spent $8.37 per vote cast in 2019, according to figures on its website. That was third cheapest out of 62 counties in the state.
In addition to cutting the commissioners’ salaries, the legislature cut $200,000 from the election board’s budget. David Knapp, the Republican legislature chairman, said that’s in keeping with off-year elections, which typically draw many fewer voters.
The reduced budget still leaves the board with more than it had for the last local election in 2019, he said.
Czarny said the legislators did not take into account changes such as early voting that will increase costs compared with 2019.
The dispute over the Board of Elections was one of several issues that divided Democrats and Republicans as they voted on the county’s $1.25 billion budget today. Like the pay cut, the full budget passed by a party-line vote, 11-6.
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