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South Whidbey parks officials back away from proposed pay cuts

LANGLEY — Faced with direct and personal pleas from employees, South Whidbey parks commissioners adopted modest reductions in the salary increases already planned for this year and spared employees from cuts to healthcare benefits in a move to solve the parks district’s evolving budget dilemma.

Parks commissioners also rejected the proposed cancellation of Winterfest and the concert series at South Whidbey Community Park, and said carve-outs in the budget made necessary by a still-opening sinkhole in property tax collections shouldn’t hurt the people who use South End parks.

Parks commissioners met in a special meeting Wednesday devoted to resetting the 2011 budget amid a budget gap of more than $100,000.

The biggest loser: the capital budget. Commissioners for the South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District zeroed out the budget for new projects this year, with reductions of $85,000 that will make up the majority of the reductions approved this week.

Gone now are things such as new picnic tables, roof repairs at the concession building, benches for Trustland Trails and improvements to the district’s new maintenance facility.

It was the slighter slip of the budget knife, however, that cut the deepest with parks board members and their staff.

Commissioners pushed back against the staff suggestion that the free festival Winterfest be cancelled, and said they also didn’t want to see maintenance efforts fall short at parks and lake facilities.

Much of the workshop was spent, however, on a discussion about whether cost-of-living, or COLA, raises should be dialed back for the district’s six employees, or if compensation should be cut in other ways.

Parks Commissioner Allison Tapert noted that Social Security recipients have gone for two years without a COLA increase.

“My thought is, if it’s good enough for the federal government, it should be good enough for us,” Tapert said.

Other parks commissioners, though, noted those increases were already showing up in paychecks.

Parks Commissioner Linda Kast said the district could cut health benefits.

“I would like to get rid of dental insurance,” Kast said, adding that it would save $3,000.

“I don’t think you can,” said Parks Director Terri Arnold, noting that a one-year contract had already been approved.

Kast said that wasn’t the case, because the insurance would be canceled if the premiums weren’t paid. She added that the district became more generous with employee compensation when parks got a “big bump” in tax revenues when its property tax levy was reset.

She said that making cuts would show taxpayers that the district was reducing spending in response to the current economic climate.

“We felt like we had a larger budget to work with. And now we have a smaller budget,” Kast said.

“It’s not a huge amount of money,” she added. “But I think it sends a message.”

“I think you’re sending a message to your employees,” said Tom Fallon, maintenance supervisor. “I’m sorry, but that’s a tough thing to do to a middle-class person.”

Arnold added that three employees were currently having dental work done.

“I am in the middle of some dental surgery,” she said.

The healthcare cuts failed to find other support on the parks board.

“I just feel like I want to represent the common taxpayer’s living situation with the way we run our parks district,” Kast said.

“I think the common taxpayer’s situation is a little more drastic than dental benefits,” Tapert replied.

She pointed out that employees were in line to get COLA raises ranging from 1 to 3 percent.

“I don’t know many people who have seen increases to their wages in the last couple of years,” she said.

Tapert proposed freezing salaries at the 2010 level, but the suggestion fell to defeat on a 2-2 vote, for lack of a majority.

When asked for a different proposal, Kast said the COLA could be kept in place since workers were already receiving the money, but that merit raises could be frozen.

Since merit raises have not yet been awarded this year, no one would get a cut in pay.

“That wouldn’t be taking away money from anyone,” she said.

But Arnold asked the board to explain their reasoning behind the reductions.

“This is sort of more of a philosophical thing: Are you generalizing upon the public that just holds jobs, or are you generalizing upon the population that has established careers?”

“I’m just going to give you an example. I’m 53 years old; I have 19 years in this business. I just reached the pinnacle of my career,” Arnold said, noting she had received certification after passing the parks-and-rec professional exam.

“I wouldn’t expect at this point in my career to be having these conversations,” she said.

“I’m a taxpayer. I’m just like everybody else. I’m not any different than the people you’re generalizing upon,” Arnold said.

“I’ve identified this as a career,” she added. “I’ve spent thousands of dollars getting my degree. I come to this district with 19 years of experience, and I think that is rewarded. It’s not just an old job I go out to every morning.”

Parks commissioners said a broad spectrum of people had suffered because of the poor economy.

“This economy has changed things drastically. Having an education and having a career doesn’t protect one from an economy like this,” Tapert said.

Parks Commissioner Matt Simms said the district was not cutting jobs, so talk of adjusting employee pay was reasonable.

“This economy has affected the job of anyone from a temporary day laborer to a professional with 45 years of experience,” Simms said.

“It’s been indiscriminate and brutal in that way, and we wish it were something different. Unfortunately, at this moment in time in our history, it’s not,” he said.

Parks commissioners voted 3-1 to keep the COLA raises in place, and limit merit increases to a total of $3,000 this year.

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