Though Lewis and Clark County officials say it could cost up to $265,000 per year to raise the sheriff's salary by $5,000, County Commission Chair Susan Good Geise said that isn't going to happen. 

“There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell,” she said Wednesday. 

As a result of a 2-1 commission vote Tuesday, the sheriff will absorb the coroner's duties beginning on Jan. 1, 2019. Geise and Commissioner Andy Hunthausen both voted to consolidate the two elected positions, and Commissioner Jim McCormick was firmly against it. 

Though the commissioners would like to increase the sheriff's pay to take on the extra duties, they might not be able to do that without giving deputies a pay raise as well. 

The compensation for sworn deputies is set as a percentage of the sheriff's pay. County officials fear that raising the sheriff's pay without raising the deputies' pay could lead to a lawsuit, resulting in costly legal bills. 

The county's Finance Director Nancy Everson said current Sheriff Leo Dutton receives $73,653 per year, and an addition of $5,000 would cost another $265,000 each year as a result of the trickle-down matrix for deputy compensation.

While Everson said some counties pay their sheriff-coroners one salary for the sheriff's duties and another salary for the coroner's duties, Lewis and Clark County officials will be cautious about that separation because this pay structure has not yet been tested in court. 

The only way to keep the consolidation revenue-neutral is “to not add additional pay to the sheriff’s current salary," she said. 

The county's compensation board will convene in May to recommend a pay rate for the new sheriff-coroner, but the county commission will have the final say. 

Though Geise reaffirmed the commission would would reject any pay structure that costs the county an additional $265,000, all three commissioners said they would continue to evaluate their options. 

“I’m not going to support anything that will risk the county’s liability,” Hunthausen said. “I want to find some way to support the sheriff, and will consider options.”

McCormick said he would wait for the process to play out.

“There will be several months to consider the issue, consider different scenarios,” McCormick said. “ ... Taking on additional expense to the county, I am not in favor of that."

The filing period for candidates running for sheriff in the November 2018 election opens Jan. 11, and Dutton said he plans to run for re-election. While Geise said she expects the sheriff's office to retain Coroner Bryan Backeberg and his staff after the consolidation takes place, Hunthausen said the commission has "no control over the day-to-day operations of the sheriff's office."

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Reporter at the Helena Independent Record.

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