On March 28, 1781, Washington County was created by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania and during those 240 years, our form of county government has not changed. We still have three elected county commissioners as well as an elected district attorney, sheriff, controller, treasurer, register of wills, prothonotary, recorder of deeds, clerk of courts and coroner. All of these positions are elected in four-year cycles and serve four-year terms. And all of these positions cost taxpayers money.
As of today, the three Washington County Commissioners are each paid approximately $99,000 per year, which is one of the highest salaries among commissioners in the region. And it does not stop there. When you tack on health care and retirement benefits, the actual number of what commissioners are paid goes up about 30% more. Also, each of the officials mentioned are paid approximately $94,000 a year and, when you add benefits for each, the actual number again swells. Now, add to the equation the money spent to run each county official’s office: a paid deputy, employees, office overhead and a solicitor. The only thing that really has changed in the past 240 years is that salaries have greatly increased while the duties of these offices have stayed the same.
Currently, the county commissioners are reviewing all aspects of county programs to save tax dollars, while allowing things to run more efficiently. It is also time that we look at ourselves, the elected officials, and review the makeup of county government to see if we can save money while operating more efficiently. This can be done through establishing a Government Study Commission.
The role of the Government Study Commission would be the following: conduct an in-depth study of county government, probe procedures and relationships of different parts of government as to their weaknesses and strengths, look outside county government to discover improved practices that might be applied and adopted, evolve from its studies an arrangement for better government that will operated in a manner that will win the respect and trust of all citizens. Other issues that could be studied are elected officials’ salaries, term limits and more personal accountability. For instance, if a criminal offense or misbehavior occurs in a county office, or by someone who holds the public trust, such as the theft of funds in the clerk of courts office in 2019, swift action can be taken without having to wait for another election to rectify the situation.
The decision of whether to study the structure of our government and consider the advisability of changing that form of government will be made by you, the voters. The process of studying our government can be started two ways 1) the county commissioners can pass a resolution to start the process or 2) a group of citizens can petition for the same. Then, the voters will elect a group of citizens to conduct the study and report their recommendations back to the voters for a final decision. Only the voters will decide if they want their government to change.
It’s time for the Washington County commissioners to pass a resolution to initiate the process to study our form of government. Nearly 240 years is long enough. It’s time for Washington County government to join the 21st century.
Larry Maggi is vice chairman of the Washington County Board of Commissioners.