Should raises for elected officials be a budget priority?
That’s one of the questions facing Island County commissioners as they begin the budget process for next year and decide where to invest tax dollars that are slowly accumulating as the recession fades into history.
Commissioners Helen Price Johnson and Jill Johnson met with other elected officials Monday afternoon to kick off the budget process with a discussion about countywide priorities.
Johnson noted that the county is in the midst of a salary study on certain staff positions and asked whether the county should plan for possible wage increases for those who may earn less than average.
The elected officials, however, focused instead on their own salaries.
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks noted that elected officials haven’t had a pay raise since 2009, while members of two unions received cost of living adjustments.
“Most elected officials feel we are falling way behind,” he said.
Indeed, a study by Budget Director Elaine Marlow shows that most county officials’ salaries are near the bottom when compared to seven similar-sized counties.
The salaries for most county elected officials are based on a percentage of the District 3 commissioner’s salary, which is currently $78,496. The assessor, auditor, treasurer, clerk and coroner each make 90 percent, which is $70,647 a year.
The judges’ and the prosecutor’s salaries are set by the state.
Marlow found that only Mason County officials make less among the seven similar counties.
The sheriff earns 110 percent of the commissioner’s salary, or $86,350 a year, which is near the median for the eight counties.
The prosecutor earns $128,889 a year, but the county only pays $52,985 of that. The state pays $75,904. By comparison, the Skagit County prosecutor earns $138,305 a year.
For most of the positions, any salary increases would go into effect next year for whomever is successful in the upcoming election. The District 1 and 2 commissioners would have to wait until after the next election in two years.
A 5 percent salary increase every other year for county commissioners was written into county code until the recession hit.
The board repealed the pay increase grid in county code and cancelled elected officials’ salary increases set for 2009. Due to state law, they were unable to legally cut salaries for District 1 and 2 commissioners until after the 2010 election, so the two commissioners donated back part of their salaries for those two years; the salary was officially decreased in 2011.
Price Johnson said she would not be in favor of increasing elected officials’ salaries by 5 percent. She noted that represented employees only received 2 percent cost of living adjustments.
“I want to make sure we don’t exceed the increase we have made available to the unions,” she said.
Price Johnson said she would prefer that the county set up a salary commission, which is a group of citizens who set elected officials’ salaries.
Banks said he also likes the salary commission format since it tends to take politics out of the issue, but he was concerned that there wasn’t enough time to set up a commission this year.
Price Johnson said she would look into the issue.
Beyond salaries, much of the discussion Monday focused on technological and security improvements, such as adding a panic button to the clerk’s office, updating the county website and digitizing records.
There were plenty of complaints about county facilities, particularly what elected officials characterized as absurd heating and cooling problems in the administrative building and the Law and Justice Center.
“You could hang meat in my office and it would stay for a long time,” Banks said.
He and Undersheriff Kelly Mauck also grumbled about the lack of space in the Law and Justice Center. Elected officials immediately complained about the lack of space when it was opened just 13 years ago, though it stopped being a concern because of staff cuts during the recession.
But now that the county is returning to pre-recession staffing levels, the crowding will become a problem again, Banks predicted. He pointed out that past commissioners claimed that the facility was built so that adding more space would be easy.
In the end, Price Johnson emphasized that the discussion was just a starting point and that budget decisions will be made after in-depth meetings with each elected official and department heads.