Circuit, chancery clerks pocket sky-high salaries

By By Terry R. Cassreino / assistant managing editor
June 27, 2004
As soon as Lauderdale County supervisors raised their pay last week, they quickly became the target of criticism from people angered that a part-time job now pays $44,700 a year.
At the same time, two other county officials whose raises were automatically granted this year by the state Legislature escaped unscathed. Circuit and chancery clerks will be able to earn at least $90,000.
The key words here are "at least." Clerks could earn significantly more than $90,000 a year. In fact, some already do, regularly pocketing as much or more money than the governor's annual $122,160 salary.
The state Auditor's Office reports that four of 82 circuit clerks and 26 of 82 chancery clerks across the state pocketed more than $100,000 each in income during calendar year 2003.
If that isn't shocking enough, consider this: Lafayette County's Bill Plunk made the most last year among chancery clerks with $175,745 while Pearl River County's Vickie Hariel topped circuit clerks with $137,659.
Although no where near those levels, clerk pay in Lauderdale County was nonetheless high. Circuit Clerk Donna Jill Johnson reported $85,512 last year, while Chancery Clerk Ann Wilson Hayes reported $85,166.
Fee system
Circuit and chancery clerks are part of a dying breed in Mississippi officials elected countywide who take their pay from fees their offices collect for services they provide.
Among other things, circuit clerks receive fees for conducting elections, issuing marriage licenses and serving as registrar while chancery clerks are paid for serving as county treasurer and auditor.
State legislators, though, thought they had a solution. Tired of hearing constituents complain about skyrocketing clerk income, lawmakers voted in 1993 to limit the pay to $75,600 from fees clerks collected.
The cap eventually jumped to $83,160, where it stayed until lawmakers raised it to $90,000 this year. Any additional fees above the cap were supposed to go to the county general fund.
But the income limit didn't last long. Loopholes in the 1993 law allowed circuit and chancery clerks to circumvent the intent of the legislation and collect fees not subject to the cap.
Plunk, for instance, met the $83,160 income cap last year. He also earned another $92,585 for services exempt from the cap including $33,000 as county administrator and $32,400 as comptroller/bookkeeper.
Touchy issue
For the most part, state legislators have avoided discussing the issue since 1993. Now, the lawmaker who guided the 1993 proposal to passage said he believes it's time to revisit clerk pay.
State Rep. Danny Guice Jr.,
R-Ocean Springs, said he plans to sponsor a bill next year that could put clerks on a straight salary a proposal he readily admits could face a difficult fight.
Besides being preoccupied with the state's fiscal problems, lawmakers also would have to buck many circuit and chancery clerks who guardedly protect the fee system and oppose any changes.
In fact, circuit and chancery clerks are the biggest obstacle to changing the fee system.
Some state legislators worry that circuit and chancery clerks in rural counties who often hold great sway with voters could recruit a viable opponent in their House or Senate race come 2007.
Of course, lawmakers also respond to constituents. And if the people shift their attention from county supervisors' pay to circuit and chancery clerk pay, anything could happen next year.
Terry R. Cassreino is assistant managing editor of The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3232, or e-mail tcassreino@themeridianstar.com.

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