Low planner salaries reflect planning's secondary role in the minds of many local government officials.
Here in Wisconsin, the smart growth initiative recently passed, and the response from many communities has not exactly been positive. Because of the level of detail required in the law, many see the whole issue as planners and lawyers creating work for themselves. Makes it hard to build respect (and get the salary that goes with it).
It's hard enough to convince some boards that planning is necessary; it's even harder to get them to invest money in it. Why should they listen to some guy not from the area? After all, anybody can plan, they say. It doesn't look that hard.
And two of the qualities of a good publicly-employed planner--the ability to mediate competing interests and build consensus--are not easily recognized or quantified. To me, planning is not unlike local public office--you can't do it for the money, you've got to love the work.
Good luck on your search, Dan. I lived in Las Cruces ten years ago, and from what I hear from friends still there, they could probably use your services again.