Rappahannock News

Supervisor­s agree their salaries — deliberate­ly lowest in Virginia — should remain unchanged

‘You do it from your heart and soul, and not from your bank account.’

- B B P

Members of the Rappahanno­ck County Board of Supervisor­s earn just $2,400 annually, making them tied with Craig County as the lowest paid elected o cials in the role statewide, according to data from the Virginia Associatio­n of Counties.

While it appears intuitive that a small rural area like Rappahanno­ck lacks the budget to more equitably compensate its o cials, the Supervisor­s’ pay also re ects a deliberate e ort on behalf of past and present members of the body to ensure it remains the lowest in Virginia.

The Supervisor­s last amended their own pay in 2003 to double monthly earnings from $100 to $200 following lengthy talks to ensure the salaries still remained on the bottom of the associatio­n of counties’ ranking, according to former County Administra­tor John McCarthy. “It was quite a pride at the time,” he said. Meeting minutes dating back to the 1990s made note that Rappahanno­ck Supervisor­s’ pay was the lowest in the state.

Stonewall-Hawthorne Supervisor Van Carney, who opposes granting himself and other members of the body a raise, identi ed the distinctio­n as yet another quirky Rappahanno­ck anomaly that sets the county apart from so many others in the state.

A ‘symbolic’ wage

Today there’s consensus among the body that their pay should remain unchanged, despite the Supervisor­s’ growing roles in the community as they graduate from primarily overseeing small-town zoning matters and a modest budget to undertakin­g vast initiative­s like expanding internet access and managing millions of dollars in COVID-19 stimulus.

Interviews with all ve members found that some spend nearly two dozen hours each week — sometimes more depending on the season — working in their role as a Supervisor between attending public meetings for various assignment­s, maintainin­g constituen­t relations and working on initiative­s. That’s on top of the hours put into their day jobs.

Most members’ desire to leave their pay unaltered re ects an attitude that holding elected o ce in Rappahanno­ck shouldn’t be a career opportunit­y for of cials to nancially enrich themselves, but rather a part-time job where they serve at the pleasure of the public while earning a living elsewhere.

“I like the story of George Washington, who went to work as president and when his term was over [and] his time was over in D.C., he went back home and farmed his land,” said Chair and Wake eld Supervisor Debbie Donehey, who owns Flint Hill’s Gri n Tavern. As chair, Donehey’s salary is double that of a rank-and- le member at $4,800 annually.

Since Rappahanno­ck’s Supervisor elections are staggered, changes to their salary under Virginia law can only be made in years when at least two members are up for reelection and won’t be enacted until the following January when the new board is sworn in. Even if the Supervisor­s’ current salary had been adjusted for in ation in 2022, members would still be earning just below $4,000 annually.

According to Charles Hartgrove, director of the Virginia Institute of Government at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, there is a longstandi­ng tradition in the state for elected o cials to work part-time for relatively low wages, as is done in the Virginia General Assembly.

“A lot of local government­s in Virginia and beyond have struggled with this because, let’s be honest, it’s never looked upon favorably for elected o - cials to give themselves a raise,” he said. “The political realities of it sometimes make it really challengin­g for elected o cials to look at their pay in an objective manner.”

The county’s budget couldn’t a ord for the Supervisor­s salary to be raised without a hike in property taxes, widely understood to be unpopular with Rappahanno­ck voters. “Do I think this ought to be a fully-funded, full-time position to serve on the Rappahanno­ck County Board of Supervisor­s? No, It shouldn’t be,” said Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith. “And the notion that it could be is frankly absurd.”

Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson, who works full-time at global law rm White & Case where he earns signi - cantly more than as an o cial, views the meager salary he and his colleagues make to be symbolic of the social contract that exists between Supervisor­s and citizens.

“It’s either we’re going to get symbolic pay for the sake of getting paid, or we’re going to get a real salary,” he said. “And I would never, ever want, request [or] expect a quote unquote real salary … For a county of 7,300 people — that would be a huge burden on the taxpayers and I don’t think it’s right.”

Counties in Virginia with larger population­s, and therefore more complex government­s and economies, generally pay their Supervisor­s more. In Northern Virginia counties like Fairfax and Loudoun, Supervisor­s earn $95,000 and $69,000 respective­ly, the two highest in the state. There, Supervisor­s also have sta to help them manage the job. Still, Rappahanno­ck pays its Supervisor­s less than other counties with smaller population­s, including Surry, Bland, Bath, King and Queen and Highland counties.

A er tax withholdin­g, Whitson, who opted out of the health insurance plan o ered by the county (the only bene t available to Supervisor­s), said he makes less than $100 each month for his work. Had he taken insurance, Whitson would have owed the county each month since his Supervisor salary wouldn’t cover the cost.

Jackson Supervisor Ron Frazier, who takes county health insurance alongside Smith and Carney, said his plan costs more than he earns monthly through his Supervisor salary.

Frazier, the longest serving member currently on the board and the sole dissenter of the 2003 pay raise granted to the Supervisor­s, said he doesn’t feel adequately compensate­d for his work, but has little interest in pushing for change because he feels the county is wastefully spending money elsewhere, including on broadband expansion, and therefore can’t a ord to pay them more.

A semi-retired electricia­n, he currently works as a contractor for the federal government, but would not disclose the nature of his work or which agency he conducts it for.

Rappahanno­ck pays its Supervisor­s less than other counties with smaller population­s.

‘It’s not about the money’

Maintainin­g such a low salary leaves many wondering if it could crowd out or discourage low-income workers from seeking o ce since it’s an impossible wage to live on for a job that demands so much time and energy.

Historical­ly, Rappahanno­ck’s Board of Supervisor­s has been comprised of farmers and other blue collar workers, but today the demographi­cs most likely


“A lot of local government­s in Virginia and beyond have struggled with this because, let’s be honest, it’s never looked upon favorably for elected o cials to give themselves a raise.”

to run are workers with means or retirees, Whitson said. Both groups have the time and nancial resources necessary to sustain themselves through their tenure. “You want a good pool of candidates … [ but] there are many people who are precluded from running for o ce because they need to get paid,” Whitson said.

Campaignin­g can also be expensive. Carney, whose day job is managing Sperryvill­e’s Pen Druid Brewery with his brothers, self- nanced $1,000 toward his 2021 campaign, almost half a year’s salary.

But members agreed that it's not a large enough concern to act upon since elections have remained competitiv­e, suggesting there are enough individual­s interested in seeking of ce who aren’t deterred by low wages. “I think that so far we’ve done pretty well in terms of having community support in civic duty and people standing up for it and saying, ‘ Yup, I’ll do it’ and not expecting anything,” Carney said.

Other government roles in Rappahanno­ck, where the median household income is more than $80,000, pay fairly well. County Administra­tor Garrey Curry earns nearly $150,000, more than most of his peers in counties the size of Rappahanno­ck.

Many constituti­onal o cers also make more than six gures, including Clerk of the Circuit Court Peggy Ralph, Commonweal­th’s Attorney Art Go and Sheri Connie Compton, according to data provided by Curry. But those roles' salaries are set by the state based on population size.

“A lot of people that I’ve talked to, they don’t work for Rappahanno­ck County because of the pay,” said Smith, who works as a fulltime account executive for the Elkwood-based Communicat­ions Corporatio­n of America. “But we do the work for the county out of a sense of duty and love of the county. And frankly because of the intangible­s: the quality of life and out of commitment to a beautiful rural community. That drives us to serve and that’s the kind of reward you can’t monetarily compensate for.”

Whitson noted the personal satisfacti­on and experienti­al value he derives from the job. “It’s a really interestin­g life chapter and I’m grateful for the opportunit­y. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done … it’s not about the money,” he said.

Donehey said of being a Supervisor: “It’s almost like working for a nonpro t … You do it from your heart and soul, and not from your bank account.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States