Fringe Benefits For Road Commissioners?

Just when you think you’ve figured everything out, you find an old practice that’s never mentioned. County Commissioners are required by law to appoint 3 members to the Road Commission for Oakland County and set their compensation.  The Road Commission for Oakland County is not a part of county government and their salary has been set at $10,000 a year for their services.  Not bad.  Their salary hasn’t changed in 21 years but I  thought it was pretty generous and no one ever suggested that we increase it so it stayed the same. 

Earlier this year, the Circuit Court sent over a suggested cut in salary for the Jury Commission.  The three members on it received $3,000 a year and the name for each appointee is by law provided to the County Board of Commissioners by the Chief Judge.  As it turned out, the Jury Commission at one time was responsible for seeing that there was a jury pool for the court.  That’s been a staff function for years and the commission is has little to do so dropping their salary to a $75 per-diem was reasonable.  

I started asking questions about the road commission and discovered that under state law road commissioner compensation – salary plus fringe benefits (yes, I said fringe benefits) must be adopted by the county board of commissioners but all costs for road commissioner compensation must come from road funds – not county funds.  The law specifically states that the county commission can provide for compensation and “insurance.”

 Fringe benefits for road commissioners have been one of the best kept secrets in Oakland County.  There were even long term people in our budget department that didn’t know about the practice.

But looking back, it took me 3 years to find out why everyone wanted to be on the Parks Commission – “Golf for life” –  was finally whispered into my ear by a colleague one day.  “What?”  It took another decade to get the right people on the Parks Commission to end that practice.  It was ended in 2009.

Back to the Road Commissioners who have a full fringe benefit package but at this point in time no one has been able to find the County Commissioner resolution that authorized the package.  That does not mean that some county commission didn’t provide for these benefits back in the 1930’s, 1940’s or 1950’s – we just don’t have the authorization document(s) and are waiting to see them. 

Functions in government often start for a good purpose and fair compensation is provided.  With the road commissioners, in the past, they were it.  They really ran the operation.  Over the years that has changed and now, an administrator and administrative staff, engineers and a host of other staff run the day-to-day operations of the road commission but the compensation package (where ever it came from) has not changed significantly.

We do know that they have health care including dental and optical, a retirement plan, and access to a deferred compensation plan.  In the past each road commissioner had a car, too.  They have ended that practice but I’ve yet to find the initial authorization from the county board of commissioners for the cars. 

I believe it is time to phase out the fringe benefits as new road commissioners are appointed.  So, I tried to do that and the resolution got killed in first committee that it went to. It got a lot of discussion but it died. Sad to say, there were Republicans who defended the benefits practice. 

What is even more surprising is that generous compensation packages that road commissioners are provided all around the state.  Even though most of them are out in the open, it’s hard to justify the continuation of  these costly practices.

One county commissioner has said that he’ll take this up during the next term.  I’ll be watching and you should, too.

By Sue Ann Douglas, Oakland County Commissioner