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Island County approves freeze in pay raises

COUPEVILLE — In light of Island County’s ongoing budget crisis, county commissioners unanimously voted Monday to freeze the salaries of most elected officials.

The move put a halt to an automatic 5-percent pay raise that elected officials — including members of the board of commissioners, plus the assessor, auditor, sheriff, county clerk, treasurer, coroner and prosecuting attorney — were set to receive next year.

The routine raises, which are granted every odd-numbered year under an ordinance approved by commissioners in August 1994, have been the source of contention for more than two years as the county has grappled with a multi-million dollar budget gap. County leaders have chopped roughly $4.2 million in spending since 2008 and have cut more than 60 jobs, and the county’s shaky financial situation has prompted commissioners to ask voters to approve a property tax increase in August.

County Budget Director Elaine Marlow reminded commissioners this week of the county’s grim financial future, and said despite the budget cuts, expenses in the general fund — the pot of money that pays for most basic government services — will continue to outpace revenues, and the county’s cash reserves will run dry by 2014.

“Our five-year forecast is very, very negative, to say the least,” Marlow said.

Marlow also noted that some elected officials had donated portions of their pay back to the county — ranging from 5 to 17 percent — and had been picking up other costs, as well.

She said the savings from the pay freeze would be approximately $28,000.

The salary freeze would only chill the automatic pay increase for County Commissioner John Dean. The salaries for Commissioner Helen Price Johnson and Commissioner Angie Homola, however, can’t be changed while they are still completing the remaining two years of their current terms of office.

Instead, Marlow said Price Johnson and Homola would voluntarily donate their salary increase back to the county in 2011 and 2012 — “which will have the same effect as freezing your salaries,” Marlow told the commissioners.

Including those donations, the total savings would be about $36,000.

During the public hearing before the vote, Roy Lesher of Camano Island said the move may impact the vote for Proposition 1, the primary measure to increase the property tax levy for the general fund by 16 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

“We have all grown up in an era of mainly inflation, where prices rise, the cost of goods and services rise and taxes rise at the same time. None of us were prepared for this degree of recession, where we are being faced with increasing taxes at the same time no one’s income is increasing,” he said.

“People on a fixed income like myself are suffering on an increasing basis every time we increase taxes,” Lesher added.

Lesher, however, also criticized the statements made by some to garner support for Prop. 1.

“The language and the arguments used in favor of Prop. 1 still have an aura, if you will, of a lack of credibility,” he said.

While he supported the salary freeze, Lesher also said commissioners should consider examining how county employees are reimbursed for travel expenses.

“This is a good time to take a fresh look at that,” Lesher said.

Commissioners said the salary freeze was a needed step in bringing the budget back in line.

“As to credibility ... I feel pretty credible about what we’ve been doing here in Island County,” Homola said. “I think it’s commendable what our employees have done and what our elected officials have done in the face of where we are now and our economic climate.

“This is a lot bigger problem than drilling down to what each one of our Island County employees receives in their pay,” she said. “This is a community problem about where we’re at and where the money’s been coming from.”

The county has been sustained by sales taxes “due to rampant growth,” Homola said.

“So trying to figure out how to cover that by ... reducing the salaries and the wage rates of the employees here is not sustainable,” she said. “Looking at what the salaries are for each of us, I think, is important, but I also think it’s a temporary fix.”

County commissioners are paid $78,496, and the salary will stay the same for the District Three position in 2011. With the automatic increase still taking effect for Homola and Price Johnson — though that increase will be returned voluntarily to county coffers — the salaries for the two commissioners will rise to $82,421 before their pay returns to the level of $78,496 in 2013.

“I think this is a necessary step for us to take,” said Price Johnson of the salary freeze. “This is one of the pieces of the budget that we can control.”

“Island County government has reset itself,” Price Johnson added. “We have restructured and reorganized and diminished the services that are available to our public.

“And at some point we will hit the end of what those modifications can be and still meet the needs of our community. I believe we are at that point right now,” she said.

The approval of the five-percent freeze puts to rest a bit of a snafu for the county: In mid-June, it looked as though a missed deadline would result in officials getting pay raises after all, despite the fact that commissioners didn't want them. Further research revealed that there was still time to revoke the pay increases, which led to Monday's action.

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