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.’
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
CHARLES HARTGROVE, DIRECTOR OF THE VIRGINIA INSTITUTE OF GOVERNMENT:
“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.”