Commissioners consider how to raise elected officials' salaries
October 31, 2019
Wahkiakum County officials continued their presentation of preliminary budget requests this week, starting with a long discussion with department heads over pay increases.
Throughout 2019, elected officials and staff have been working through a salary committee to standardize pay scales across all departments in large part to eliminate inequities in compensation. They've also considered increases for elected and appointed officials, who are paid lower than in many other similar size counties.
"We've discussed wage increases for union and non-union employees and now we'd like to hear from you," commission Chair Dan Cothren told elected department heads.
"There are a number of things regarding the salary committee and salary table," responded Auditor Nicci Bergseng. "If you don't include us (elected officials) in the tables, you'll have what you had before where employees were making more than the elected department heads.
"There's a lot to being an elected official," said Treasurer Tammy Peterson. She cited a department head's responsibility to administer the department and implement new state laws and mandates.
"We shouldn't stay stagnant," she added. "We want to see the salary table move forward."
She also urged the commission to move forward carefully, for there's uncertainty in future revenue stability. Consider implementing salary committee recommendations in the 2020 budget first and consider requests to modify the status and rank of positions in another six months, depending on the county's financial position, she suggested.
Salary compression is a real issue, said Prosecuting Attorney Dan Bigelow. He pointed out that it is occurring in sheriff's department wages, with union compensation rates coming close to top officials' salaries.
Bigelow also urged the commission to monitor the salary committee carefully to make sure its recommendations were financially feasible.
Sheriff Mark Howie echoed the comments from Bergseng and Peterson.
"From what I hear, what is proposed is fair," Howie said. "Going a step further, if it is realistic in the budget, look at the asks (the requests to modify the status and rank of positions)."
He commented that corrections officers are stuck in a pay scale that doesn't adequately compensate them for longevity and the increased responsibilities they have.
"The salary committee was convened for a reason--to look at the issue of equity in pay between the offices," said District Court Judge Heidi Heywood. The committee's recommendations should lead to comparable pay for comparable positions across the departments, "assuming it's sustainable as a whole," she said.
Commissioner Dan Cothren, serving in his fifth term of office, acknowledged department heads haven't always had raises when their employees have had them.
"As for elected officials, a lot of times, they didn't get raises ,and they've had to go through it."
In past financial shortfalls, they've had to pick up work done by employees who were laid off, and in the meantime, their overall workloads have increased as departments have come to provide mores services, he explained.
"On my part, I support these increases so that someone isn't butting up to you," he said.
"My priority will always be the county," said Commissioner Mike Backman. "I love you all, but we haven't found a way to make more money, and our costs keep increasing. If income stays the same and your pay goes up, it won't be sustainable."
He suggested putting the issue of salary increases for department heads on an advisory ballot for voters.
"What else can you do here and make that kind of money," he added.
Bergseng responded that salaries for Wahkiakum County officials are low compared to those in other counties. For example, she said, elected official salaries in Cowlitz County are tied to a percentage of the Superior Court judge salary (which is set by the state) and are over $100,000.
Local school administrator salaries have topped $100,000, Coons added.
Backman didn't like the comparison.
"Are you saying you're the same as a school superintendent," Backman asked. "He runs the whole school district."
Peterson said the comment offended her, for department heads supervise programs that cover the whole county and total tens of millions of dollars.
"This entire county couldn't exist without the elected officials sitting here," she said.
"You have to look beyond the office," Howie added. "We run offices for the entire county."
Assessor Coons commented that it is difficult to find people with the training and temperament to run for elected office.
"The fact is you have to be insane to run for public office in this era," he said. "You have to have someone who loves the county who will be willing to run for office."
"We have always stated in the past that we would try to get you (elected officials) up to where you need to be if the money is available," Cothren said. "I think there's room to do some things this year."
"We're a small county but we have to do all the stuff big counties do," he added. " My biggest fear is if we don't get good people in office to do the job, where are going to be in the future?"
"Dan is right," said Commissioner Gene Strong. "You go to another county and the elected officials wear one hat. Here you're in charge of several departments. What we have to do is look at what we can do and make sure you're compensated fairly."
Commissioners moved to other department budgets but returned to the salary issues later in the day, agreeing to implement the salary committee's recommendations for union and non-union employees but holding off on a decision on how to adjust department heads' salaries.
"Philosophically, I think they should have to go before the salary committee (to advocate for a raise)," Backman said. "There's got to be a better way of doing it than what we're doing today."
Strong suggested implementing the salary committee's recommendation to increase the salaries of elected officials and appointed officials in 2020, and further, the salary committee in 2020 could compare those salaries with rates in similar size counties across the state to see how they should be adjusted, perhaps tieing them to a percentage of the prosecuting attorney or a judge, which are set by the state salary commission.